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A Whole New Kind of Midlife Crisis with Michael Cunningham

Yes, the Michael Cunningham of The Hours fame is back. Some may debate whether he is back and ‘better than ever’, but he’s back. And even if he is not better than ever, we’re better for it. By Nightfall is a good read.

Book covers always seem to arrogantly predict that a book will be with you for a long while. Hey, we know I’m a skeptic. Not many reverberate thaaaaatttt loonnnnggg. But this one has an echo and I can’t help but wonder if a second reading would yield even more enjoyment. The book packs a dense punch. It’s short. But it takes some concentration to wade through. The writing, as we can count on from Cunningham, is very very good.

We join Peter Harris in Mahattan. Forty-four. Married to the beautiful-but-maybe-fading Rebecca. Father to a disgruntled 20-something named Bea. A well-respected art dealer.

“Here they are: a middle-aged couple in the back of a cab (this driver’s name is Abel Hibbert, he’s young and jumpy, silent, fuming). Here are Peter and his wife, married for twenty-one (almost twenty-two) years, companionable by now, prone to banter, not much sex anymore, but not no sex, not like other long-married couples he could name, and yeah, at a certain age you can imagine bigger accomplishments, a more potent and inextinguishable satisfaction, but what you’ve made for yourself isn’t bad, it’s not bad at all.”

So if Peter is bumping along in a not so bad way, it will take a complication to make this story interesting. To make his life interesting.

And the complication does come–in the form of Rebecca’s much younger brother Mizzie. (Nicknamed Mizzie as in the Mistake, as in an unexpected child). Mizzie is a 23 year old drifter, a Yale dropout, a potentially reformed drug user, and gorgeous. Rebecca is a good sister and near mother who wants to help with positive options for her younger brother. While setting some limits.

Well, Mizzie creates a car crash for Peter while Rebecca is oblivious.

Without ruining every twist and turn, Peter is attracted to Mizzie. Physically, emotionally. It’s a good shift on an old concept of the midlife crisis. And while a homosexual affair threatens throughout the book, Cunningham handles this with complexity and nuance. We can’t be sure Peter is really attracted to Mizzie in this sexual way. It could be that Mizzie is a younger, perfected version of the woman he once married (the similarities are profound); it could be that he is chasing a relationship that is absent with his daughter; it could be he is seeing his career for the first time through the eyes of a young person pursuing ‘the arts’ with a skeptical glance.

But mostly, it seems through the undercurrent conversation in the novel about art is that we prize beautiful objects. Peter is an art dealer. He trades in beauty. He struggles in his career to balance pushing art that has commercial value and those pieces which are profound works of beauty (which may not sell at all). Mizzie is an experience of art.

It’s a tense story.

We are empathetic to Peter. He is awkward and vulnerable. Confused and suddenly adrift.
We are angry with Mizzie. He is manipulative and reckless. Unaware. Selfish.

But we definitely aren’t left unaffected.

And so yes, the story does stay with you a long time. And might even prompt a second reading.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. deacondog #

    Hey Book Snob,
    I was looking for info on book club books for men and women and read your post from last April. Then I was pleased to see your review of Cunningham’s new book. It’s on my “to read” list.

    My husband and I decided to do our own mini-book club, so we’ve been compiling a list of books we’d both like. It’s pretty frilly out there in the realm of “book club books” and the like. Do you have any suggestions for where to look for books and discussion ideas?

    I look forward to future posts, Book Snob.

    January 24, 2011

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