Tuesday, December 10, 2013

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 238

Peter and Rebecca Harris seem to have it all. Midforties, denizens of Manhattan’s SoHo, and within reach of the pinnacle of their careers in the arts—he’s a dealer at a second-tier gallery, she’s an editor at an art magazine. They own a fashionable loft, have a daughter in college who’s living with an older woman, enjoy influential friends, and Peter has an opportunity to take on a hot artist who will catapult his gallery into that sought-after first tier. Could life be any sweeter?

Then Rebecca’s younger brother comes for an extended visit. Ethan (given the pet name Mizzy, “the mistake”) is a handsome, beguiling, mid-twenties drifter with a history of drug problems. He is looking for direction, and Rebecca and the rest of her family is determined to help him “straighten out his life.” But rather than helping Mizzy find himself, Peter begins questioning his own career, his marriage, even his sexuality. Suddenly, Peter’s carefully constructed world doesn’t seem so appealing.

Much like his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, Cunningham takes a sober look at how modern society lives. He masterfully contrasts a responsible, ambitious, serious couple with a carefree, manipulative, playboy. It is a story that resonates, that forces the reader to think long and hard about what is important in life, and how we choose to live and love.

The epigraph Cunningham chose for this work is a line from Rilke's "Duino Elegies": "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." It gives us the all-encompassing theme: the pursuit, use, and misuse of beauty destroys.

Like many of Cunningham’s novels, this story has plenty of gay content without becoming a “gay novel”. It has universal themes that everyone can relate to.

I’ve not always connected with Cunningham’s work, but this novel captivated me. It is perhaps not of the same brilliance as The Hours, yet it certainly shines bright as a triumphant work. The prose is always spot on and a delight to read. The characters are real, flawed, and absorbing. The story resonates with frustrated desires and unfulfilled needs. Bravo.

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