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BY NIGHTFALL by Michael Cunningham (HarperCollins Canada), 256 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
It’s hard to write about a Michael Cunningham novel without comparing it to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours.
His bio in By Nightfall doesn’t even mention his last book, Specimen Days, a sci-fi-leaning novel even I, a writer, couldn’t get through. It does, however, cite every actor in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of The Hours.
Cunningham may never come out from the shadow of that overwhelmingly successful book. In By Nightfall, however, he tries, and it’s as well written as The Hours, albeit slimmer and less epic in scale. It is, though, just as thoughtful about how and why we live the way we do – or, rather, how wealthy New Yorkers at mid-life live.
Fortysomething Peter Harris is an art dealer living in a SoHo loft and married to and still hot for Rebecca, an editor. They probably could have remained happily childless and boho ageless and cool in the way people with money can in Manhattan, but they have one child, who is now living in Boston as a college dropout.
Peter and Rebecca are overwhelmed with love for their daughter, but they don’t understand her. Cunningham captures with incredibly sensitivity the awkwardness of their struggle to relate to each other and their new roles as parents of a 20-something adult child.
But the real action in By Nightfall involves Rebecca’s youngest brother, whose IQ is as high as his ambition is low. Mizzy’s both a typical manipulative addict and a beautiful charmer, and when he shows up to stay with the couple, he throws their life into turmoil. His arrival prompts Peter to question certainties he’d long accepted as truths and spurs some honest, mid-life introspection about his job, marriage and role as a father.
As contemplative as I’m making it sound, By Nightfall is still a breathless page-turner, showing Cunningham still in top form.
Cunningham reads with Dionne Brand, Alison Pick and Richard B. Wright, tonight (Thursday, October 21).