three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-By NightfallMichael Cunningham quietly accrued literary honors for years, but it was sweeping the 1999 Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards with his fourth novel, The Hours (1998)--a homage to Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs. Dalloway--that put him on the cultural radar. By the time the movie version was nominated for Best Picture at the 2003 Academy Awards, Cunningham was assured popular and critical success.

The Story: The contemporary psyche continues to provide Cunningham with fresh inspiration. In By Nightfall he sets up a recognizable situation: midlife malaise sharpened by unachieved goals and a marriage gone stale. Manhattanites Peter and Rebecca have enviable careers as an art dealer and an arts publisher, respectively, and a well-appointed SoHo loft, but change is coming in the form of Rebecca's much-younger brother, Ethan, 23. He is a Yale dropout, a former drug addict, and the indulged late surprise in Rebecca's parents' marriage. Nicknamed Mizzy ("The Mistake"), Ethan has a mesmerizing beauty and charm that are rivaled only by his thorough lack of responsibility. The upheavals he causes, however, lead to unexpected meditations on beauty and human connection.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780374299088

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet's exact match. ... The pace of the writing is skilled--stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long--well, too long for whom?" Jeannette Winterson

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"There's nothing minor about Cunningham's heart, or his talent. By Nightfall deserves every superlative it has summoned." Meredith Maran

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is not until midway through that the unlived life of the fretful, self-absorbed Manhattan narrator emerges as worthy of close examination. And once it does, the attentive reader is rewarded with a wise and exhilarating epiphany at the end." Misha Berson

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If the novel's final revelation seems a bit bland, it's more than compensated for by the insight and humor that come before. Admittedly, By Nightfall doesn't have the emotional breadth of The Hours, but it's a cerebral, quirky reflection on the allure of phantom ideals, and even, on what a traditional marriage needs to survive." Ron Charles

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"By Nightfall is a good book, even a challenging one. But for a story about the power of passion to upend lives, it lacks juiciness and messiness. ... Instead of a novel overflowing with flesh and sweat, rage and craziness, Cunningham has given us a well-considered treatise." Nancy Connors

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel HHH
"Nightfall occasionally sounds overly wrought or precious; there are too many rhetorical questions setting the table for clever answers. But it is never stupid, as Cunningham covers a broad range of topics, including the frequently cutthroat art world, the consolations of literature, the daily grind of office life, raising children, marriage, growing old and dying." Mike Fischer

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"Alas, in important ways By Nightfall is not quite successful. I never tired of reading the novel, savoring the intelligence of the prose. But the story itself, so small and incremental, has a stalled quality, a narrative stasis, that ultimately deflates the whole venture." Matthew Gilbert

Critical Summary

Critics agreed that By Nightfall is engagingly well-written--perhaps the novel's strong point. Most compared Cunningham to Homer, James, Joyce, Keats, Mann, Nabokov, Shakespeare, Twain, Whitman, Wilde, and Woolf--among other literary greats. Yet reviewers generally thought that the novel lacks in plot development, and most agreed that the character of Ethan, the provocateur, is underwritten compared to the richness of Peter and Rebecca. "Mizzy is Cunningham's Stephen Dedalus," noted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "but unlike the Joycean original, he gets no platform of his own and never really comes alive." If anything, the novel suffers by comparison to its more complex predecessors, especially The Hours. Yet, for the most part, Cunningham's many fans will not be disappointed.