By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham – Book Review

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

In Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, Peter and Rebecca Harris have been married for twenty years, both with successful careers in the arts, a SoHo loft and college aged daughter, Bea. There are  a few trouble spots in their careers (Rebecca’s magazine is in talks to be sold and Peter is stymied in his efforts to find an artist who meets the heavy standards of his ideals while still being profitable) and their daughter refuses to continue college, opting instead for a career in bartending as punishment for her parents, dear old dad especially. Ethan, Rebecca’s younger brother nicknamed Mizzy (“The Mistake”, for his late in life birth), arrives in the midst of the couple’s tightrope walk to balance a relationship that is increasingly stagnant.

By Nightfall is told from Peter’s point of view. The reader is privy to the way he carefully negotiates every transaction in his life, from the art he displays to the responses he makes in conversation with his wife, his clients and artists, his staff. The true goal in his life seems to be never to rock the boat. The reader quite literally get hears him judge people and situations, juxtaposing and weighing their histories and relationships, always offering up the remark most appropriate for preserving the status quo. Cunningham’s Peter is well-drawn, so much so that my reaction to him was constant throughout. I can’t say that I much enjoyed him. Less discernible are the remaining characters in the novel. You only get a sense of them through Peter’s own needs and fantasies; as a result their characters are less clear, but even still, there weren’t many that I liked.

Not much surprised me about By Nightfall’s VERY loose plot. By the second chapter, there is enough of a sense of Rebecca and Peter’s marriage, personalities and current life paths to know exactly how events will arrange themselves when Mizzy arrives. This novel mainly revolves around Peter’s minute-to-minute rationalizations and decision-making, burgeoning sexual identity crisis, loss of confidence in his career, and his efforts to stabilize his relationships with his wife and daughter (or abandon them completely). Being inside Peter’s head, and his hip stream of consciousness, is a lot like inhabiting a giant scorecard. The novel works as a study of a life that is barely holding together in face of middle age insecurity and the temptations and pitfalls of idealism and youth.

By Nightfall, will work primarily for those interested in an intricate character study and not much else.  This novel moved  slowly for me, in spite of its brevity. Though capable of reading books where not much happens,  I needed more than Cunningham offered here. It didn’t help that Peter annoyed me and made life as an established adult seem terribly unappealing – an endless dance of second guessing every word from your mouth, questioning every career and relationship decision ever made, and having the same conversations that you rather wouldn’t.

Cunningham’s writing is beautiful in places, descriptive but highly stylized. Peter is all about placing his judgements about those in his life in punchy little italics and parenthesis. It was pretty wearying. By Nightfall makes an excellent discussion piece, and Cunningham may have gotten many things right in his descriptive novel of mid-life ennui, but the unrelenting reality of Peter’s existence didn’t make this very enjoyable. Recommended for readers wanting either a glimpse the mechanics of art brokering, to take on the grim realities of aging relationships and careers and Cunningham’s most enthusiastic fans.

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Review Copy.

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14 Comments

  1. I just read Jennifer’s take on this book, and it seems like you were both on the same page. The guy has an amazing reputation but maybe this isn’t the book to start with in appreciating him. A slow book right now would be the end of me I think!

    1. It’s hard to read something that is so character driven when you don’t like the guy whose head you’re in. I also didn’t find him to be very interesting, but the novel did raise some interesting questions and I think it makes for really good discussion book.

  2. I’m undecided on this one, it doesn’t sound too appealing right now, but I loved Cunningham’s The Hours. Maybe he just isn’t the same without a connection to one of my favorite books (Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf). I’ll have to consider it when I want a much slower character study.

    1. I think most people are split down the middle on this one. I am curious to see the discussion that comes from it over the course of the day. Definitely do not think of picking this up if you want plot or a well paced read.

    1. This is a hard one for ne to recommend to people who enjoy plaot. Of course some things do happen, but oh so slowly, and not very much.

  3. I have heard others say that the characters in this book are extremely unlikable, and from what I know about the plot, the book doesn’t sound appealing to me. While I enjoy stylized writing at times, that can’t be the center of a book. you know? There needs to be something more. And your mention of the conversations and thoughts being like a scorecard really sounds unappealing to me. I don’t think this one is for me.

    1. This was a tough read for me, for sure. I don’t really have to like the characters that much, but I do want them to interest me, and I just didn’t care what happened to anyone really. It is very well-written, though, and I think the author accomplished what he intended to do by putting us inside the head of a middle of the road middle-aged man.

  4. I have read mixed reviews about this book. But from your review, I do not think this one is for me at all.

  5. Great review — you hit upon the things I was curious about and resolved, for me, whether to read or not (I’m going to pass for now).

  6. I had this one out from the library a while back, and unfortunately I didn’t get too far with it. I don’t think I’ll be in any big hurry to return to it, which makes me kinda sad because I’m always looking for a book from Cunningham that affects me as much as The Hours. I might be waiting a longggg time…