Middle-aged, mid-level Manhattan art dealer Peter Harris is desperately seeking promise from every facet of his ordinary life. In the trifecta of work, marriage and family, Peter—the central character in Michael Cunningham’s new novel By Nightfall—is unfulfilled and quietly flailing.

Cunningham’s unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness style of writing, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 release The Hours, captures Peter’s internal struggle. Most of the novel’s drama unfolds in Peter’s head. Readers are privy to his most intimate, and often disconcerting, ruminations.

In his career, Peter longs to find the artist: one whose art is beautiful and inspired, yet who will also spur collectors to open their checkbooks. He is on the cusp of signing such an artist, but only due to the misfortune of his good friend and colleague who, due to illness, has to let the artist go.

Peter’s collapsing marriage, however, is the focus of the plot. His wife Rebecca, editor for an arts publication, is attractive, smart and successful. But his feelings for her are waning. When her younger brother Ethan enters the picture, the real breakage begins.

Known as Mizzy, “the mistake,” Ethan is charming but deceitful. A former drug addict, he comes to crash at Peter and Rebecca’s apartment while attempting to gain some direction in his life. When he tells Peter that a career in the arts could interest him, Peter warily agrees to mentor him. But then Peter learns a secret about Mizzy—and fails to share the news with Rebecca—thus instantly complicating matters and bonding the men to one another.

With strong feelings and physical attraction surfacing for Mizzy, and Mizzy seemingly reciprocating Peter’s affection, Peter is forced to examine the parameters of love and lust. By Nightfall is the deeply felt story of the conflicted Peter, who ultimately discovers what he is willing to sacrifice for happiness.

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