By Nightfall: A Novel
Michael Cunningham (Facebook)
Picador, 2011; Trade Paperback (ISBN 0312610432 / 9780312610432)
Fiction, 256 pages
Source: Hardcover, provided by publisher
Reason for Reading: Review and BOOK CLUB discussion hosted at Linus’s Blanket today
Opening Lines: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.
“‘Are you mad about Mizzy?’ Rebecca says.
“‘Of course not,’ Peter answers.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website:
Peter and Rebecca Harris, midforties, are prosperous denizens of Manhattan. He’s an art dealer, she’s an editor. They live well. They have their troubles—their ebbing passions, their wayward daughter, and certain doubts about their careers—but they feel as though they’re happy. Happy enough. Until Rebecca’s much younger, look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, short for the Mistake), comes to visit. And after he arrives, nothing will ever be the same again.
Comments: I sometimes get on semi-intentional theme-reading streaks. This month, I chose to read two consecutive novels set in contemporary New York City and involving families in some sort of upheaval. Other than that, however, they really didn’t have as much in common as I thought they might – but that’s good. I do like to see links between the books I choose, but I don’t want to keep reading the same book.
I haven’t read all that much of Michael Cunningham’s work. I liked The Hours well enough, but it hinged on a gimmick, and I might have appreciated it more if I’d ever read Mrs. Dalloway (I still haven’t, and it’s not on the horizon. Judge me if you must). Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall, stands on its own…and is one of the finest books I’ve read this year.
Peter and Rebecca Harris are in that early-midlife phase that can call a lot into question for people; the kids are leaving home, the career may be comfortable but stalled, and you’ve done well enough that there doesn’t seem much to want from life beyond what you already have. They are, as the plot synopsis says, “happy enough,” particularly when they don’t dwell on it too much. However, there are bumps in their road, and Rebecca’s little brother Ethan becomes a big one.
By Nightfall hinges on aimless, beautiful Ethan, known as “Mizzy,” or “The Mistake,” within his family because he was born late and unexpectedly as his sisters were entering adulthood (he’s only a few years older than Peter and Rebecca’s daughter, Bea). His visit with Peter and Rebecca is prompted by his recent decision that he wants to “do something in art;” it’s his latest whim in a life seemingly propelled by whims, and Rebecca hopes that her art-dealer husband can be of some help to her brother in determining what that actually might be.
I don’t want to discuss much more of the plot of By Nightfall; it’s not strongly plot-driven, but the storyline took some turns that I didn’t expect, and I don’t want spoil the discovery for other readers. However, what made this novel compulsively readable for me was Cunningham’s writing – beautifully flowing, evocative and emotionally affecting. Particularly effective was his choice to narrate in third person limited. The only perspective the reader gets is Peter’s, and first-person narration might have made him come across as self-involved and self-indulgent; and while the third-person viewpoint doesn’t entirely avoid that at times, I felt it rendered him much more sympathetically, and certain events in the story would have had a different impact on me if I hadn’t viewed him with that degree of sympathy.
I did not expect By Nightfall to engage and move me as much as it did, and I always appreciate surprises like that – therefore, it’s not surprising that this novel will likely have a spot on my 2011 “Books of the Year” list. For more reasons why, including generous tastes of Cunningham’s writing, please check out Melissa’s quote-filled review.