Michael Cunningham is the acclaimed author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours. He also wrote the critically praised A Home At The End of the World which I really liked up until the last chapter, at which point I wanted to chuck it across the room and I gave it a 1-star review on Goodreads – something I do for only the worst of the worst. There are so few books whose endings have made me that angry and frustrated. So after that experience (and having not read The Hours), I’m not sure how I picked up his 2010 novel By Nightfall. I first tried reading it in the fall of 2010 but for some reason, it didn’t connect with me. Over 2 years later, I found myself actively seeking it out in the library and devouring it in a matter of days.
Peter and Rebecca Harris are in their early 40s. They are well-to-do (but not that well-to-do) New Yorkers. He is an art dealer and she edits an art magazine. They have a grown daughter who is a bit of a wayward youth. Their 20+ year marriage has settled into what can only be described as comfortably uncomfortable. They’ve been slowly becoming more and more remote from each other as time goes on – something they are both aware of but lack the wherewithal to actually remedy although they still love each other. So they continue along as they always have. But things are about to change, because Rebecca’s much younger brother, Ethan, is coming to town.
Ethan is referred to as “Mizzy” which is short for “The Mistake.” Twenty years Rebecca’s junior and the only boy, he is seen by everyone in his family as having limitless potential – if only he could get his life together. A recovering drug addict and globetrotter, he just can’t quite seem to settle down and now, having been in Japan sitting in a temple “looking at stones” he’s come to stay with Peter & Rebecca, looking to do “something in the arts.” Peter resents his presence almost as much as Rebecca welcomes a chance to fix him. But a renewed drug habit and an unexpected attraction between Peter and Mizzy turns everything topsy-turvy.
By Nightfall is one of those novels where nothing much happens. There are no car chases, no 50-foot monsters, no great tragedies or redemptions. Never was this more evident than when I was trying to summarize it. However, even though nothing happens, so much happens as well. This book details how even life’s smallest decisions can have very large consequences – and vice versa. I think what drew me in the most was Peter – he was a classically flawed middle aged man who feels a little bit unsatisfied not so much by the life he’s made for himself but by the fact that he’s 44 years old and mostly going through the motions. What he really wants is a little excitement or, if not excitement, something different to shake things up a bit. A lot of reviews have called this “a mid-life crisis book” and I suppose I can see where they’re coming from, but I think it’s much more than that. It’s a thoughtful look at what life can be like at mid-life, crisis or not. Peter is not the most sympathetic character in the world, and I’m not sure I would want to be his friend – something that is not unnoticed by Peter who notes that he “has no real friends…-how did that happen?- he had a whole crew of friends when he was younger” – but then again, maybe I would. You just never know.
As I mentioned, there are not any gigantic tragedies or redemptions. The end of the book was a mini-roller coaster, one that found me feeling really bad for Peter and then, quietly happy for him.
By Nightfall is not a book for everyone. Some will find its lack of action tedious and there were portions that I skimmed. For me it was an amazing character study on these three people and their lives – kind of a Bright Lights, Big City (one of my all-time favorite novels) for the over-40 set. Not that you have to be over 40 to read it, but I think it definitely helps.