By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham


I recently got my hands on the ARC (advanced readers’ copy) of Michael Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall. I know, I know–eat your hearts out. Seriously, don’t despair; you won’t have to wait long as it will be in bookstores in October.

This is a very good book, thoroughly readable. What’s it about, you ask? Well, very quickly:

Rebecca and Peter are living in Manhattan. Of course they are, because Michael Cunningham’s descriptions of that city take the reader there to an extent that rivals Ian McEwan’s ability to transport the reader to (and through) London in Saturday. In my opinion, that’s an achievement.

Rebecca and Peter are middle-aged, or getting there, long-married with a daughter freshly flown from the coop, and are both working “in the arts”–she is a magazine editor; he owns an art gallery and dreams of one day discovering that historically important artist that will transcend time, place, and the mediocrity of life.

Ahh, the mediocrity of life. It looms ever greater as a final destination the more into “middle-age” one advances.

Rebecca’s brother, Ethan, aka the Mistake, or Mizzy, comes to visit. And there begins the tale…Although I cannot recall at the moment why Ethan’s family calls him the Mistake, what is more important is that he conjures for others their own. Mistakes, that is. In life. The takes and mis-takes that lead one to live an absolutely ordinary, mediocre life.

And thus, Peter finds himself at a crux. The effect Mizzy has on Peter (I won’t give away a huge part of the book right here–even though I saw it coming like a train entering a station) is life-altering. Should Peter go off to risk finding the extraordinary? Or should he settle for his everyday, pleasant, but let’s face it, hardly amazing life?

It strikes me that this book is like a coming-of-age novel, but for middle-agers–people who haven’t been innocent for quite a while, but who still harbor some notion of the existence, in themselves or others, of the ideal. And this book is about what happens when they realize that hey, that Paradise is just an illusion. You took a bite out of the apple a long time ago and this is the world that is yours. From a hopeful standpoint, though, that world, your life, although not ideal, can still be wonderful and full of beauty.

How about you? Are you still searching for an ideal life?

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