Title: By Nightfall
Author: Michael Cunningham
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Peter and Rebecca Harris: mid-forties denizens of Manhattans SoHo, nearing the apogee of committed careers in the arts—he a dealer, she an editor. With a spacious loft, a college-age daughter in Boston, and lively friends, they are admirable, enviable contemporary urbanites with every reason, it seems, to be happy. Then Rebecca’s much younger look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, “the mistake”), shows up for a visit. A beautiful, beguiling twenty-three-year-old with a history of drug problems, Mizzy is wayward, at loose ends, looking for direction. And in his presence, Peter finds himself questioning his artists, their work, his career—the entire world he has so carefully constructed.”
Thoughts: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall explores the life of Peter Harris, a successful art dealer and one half of a long-married couple, as he struggles through an unexpected midlife crisis. The timeliness of such a topic should not be ignored, as the media and retailers alike bombard society with constant reminders of the aging nation. Beautifully written, the starkness and scarcity of words give maximum impact to the desolation Peter feels upon realizing the loss of his youth.
Peter fills in as the symbol for everyone struggling with this issue. It is not a search for happiness so much as it is a search for beauty and youth. This is best seen in Peter’s debates over art and his battles to sell new artists versus older ones. Like youth, an artist’s fame can be fleeting, as its audience is fickle and constantly changing. Peter’s struggle is a subtle one, as often he does not realize what is happening to him. Yet, the reader is left to project in what form his or her own crisis will occur, as the reader is left with the understanding that he or she will also face similar questions and/or despair at some point in time.
By Nightfall is one of those novels that does not work quite as well for female readers as it does for a male audience. Without stereotyping too much, each gender experiences different crises and motivations. As a female reader, I could sympathize with Peter but not empathize with him. There is a key distinction between the two, and the reader who can empathize with Peter is more likely to better appreciate his frame of mind throughout the novel. I personally struggled with some of his decisions, or lack thereof, and his treatment of others. Without the greater emotional connection between the main character and the reader, the book falls flat. It is still a beautiful book and asks a lot of questions about the true reasons behind divorces and/or affairs and one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.Yet, it is a novel that is meant to be enjoyed on a more primal level. Since I never bought into Peter’s motivations, it is one that just did not live up to its potential.