Michael Cunningham, author of “The Hours” (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998) published his newest book “By Nightfall” in 2010. The story takes place in New York City and although the summary on the back of the book states the story is about Peter and Rebecca Harris, a couple in living in Manhattan, the real story is about Peter Harris. Throughout the entire book, the reader is privy to every thought Peter has to the effect of feeling like the reader is in the head of the main character.
Peter Harris, a 43-year old art dealer with a gallery in the city lives with his 40-year old wife, Rebecca in a loft in Tribeca. They are the parents of a 20-year old daughter, Bea who recently dropped out of Tufts after two years to work in a hotel bar and live with another woman. A self-described “champion of the overlooked and the almost-but-not-quite” artists, Peter is obsessed with his second-rate status as an art dealer, aging and his “sagging ass” (do guys really worry about their ass? I thought only women do this).
Rebecca’s much younger gorgeous brother, 23-year old Mizzy (short for “Mistake” as he was born to a 45-year old mother and 50-year old father who already had 3 young adult daughters, one of whom is Rebecca) comes to stay with Peter and Rebecca in an attempt to get his life on tract after dropping our of Yale, a history of drug use, and international soul-searching travel. Mizzy was and is the “beautiful boy” in which the whole family is preoccupied with, including Peter. Often times, people equate beauty with potential while the beholder uses beauty to manipulate, as a tool to skirt responsibility and get what he wants – as is the case with Mizzy.
Halfway through the book, I started thinking this novel was about another man who realizes 20 years into marriage that he’s gay but the story is much deeper than that and not really about being gay or straight. “By Nightfall” is the story of a person who considers himself a “solid second-stringer, respected but not feared” and who has always been fixated on youth, potential, and beauty – sex is almost irrelevant – at the expense of all else.
Only when it’s almost too late does Peter realize he has “failed in the most base and human of ways” by not imagining “the lives of others.” He learns that it’s just not that simple to have meaningful relationships. Time strips people of youth, potential, and beauty so there needs to be a greater depth when those coveted but short-lived assets are gone in both yourself and other people.