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.