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By Nightfall: A Novel Hardcover – September 28, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 139 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Contemplating an affair that never was, SoHo art dealer Peter Harris laments that he "could see it all too clearly." The same holds true for Cunningham's emotionally static and drearily conventional latest (after Specimen Days). Peter and his wife, Rebecca--who edits a mid-level art magazine--have settled into a comfortable life in Manhattan's art world, but their staid existence is disrupted by the arrival of Rebecca's much younger brother, Ethan--known as Mizzy, short for "The Mistake." Family golden child Mizzy is a recovering drug addict whose current whim has landed him in New York where he wants to pursue a career in "the arts." Watching Mizzy--whose resemblance to a younger Rebecca unnerves Peter--coast through life without responsibilities makes Peter question his own choices and wonder if it's more than Mizzy's freedom that he covets. Cunningham's sentences are, individually, something to behold, but they're unfortunately pressed into the service of a dud story about a well-off New Yorker's existential crisis.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Peter Harris, a dispirited Soho gallery owner in his midforties, arrives home to find his wife in the shower and marvels at how lithe she looks through the steam, then realizes that he’s admiring her much younger brother. Called the Mistake, or Mizzy, he’s a lost soul, a junkie and moocher as sexy as he is manipulative. Mizzy appears just as Peter, brooding, romantic, and self-deprecating, is grappling with his failings as a father and an art dealer. Ceaselessly observant, Peter senses, or hopes for, “some terrible, blinding beauty” that will topple his carefully calibrated life, and why shouldn’t it be his alluring, feckless brother-in-law? Even if this mad infatuation stems from Peter’s deep grief for his brilliant and fearless gay brother, who died of AIDS. In his most concentrated novel, a bittersweet paean to human creativity and its particularly showy flourishing in hothouse Manhattan, virtuoso and Pulitzer winner Cunningham entwines eroticism with aesthetics to orchestrate a resonant crisis of the soul, drawing inspiration from Henry James and Thomas Mann as well as meditative painter Agnes Martin and provocateur artist Damien Hirst. The result is an exquisite, slyly witty, warmly philosophical, and urbanely eviscerating tale of the mysteries of beauty and desire, art and delusion, age and love. --Donna Seaman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (September 28, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374299080
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374299088
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #888,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Michael J. Ettner on September 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The play of emotions and themes with which Michael Cunningham is most adroit -- love, loss, desire, despair, mortality -- are again engaged in his new novel set in present-day Manhattan. But take note: the epigraph Cunningham has chosen for "By Nightfall" is a line from Rilke's "Duino Elegies": "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." That, Cunningham signals, will be the novel's all-encompassing theme: the pursuit, use, and misuse of beauty.

The principal characters in "By Nightfall" are Peter Harris, a 44-year-old contemporary art dealer, and his wife Rebecca, an editor of an arts and culture magazine. As a gallery owner, Peter's occupation is that of a "servant of beauty." He has begun to suffer existential dread: "[a] conviction, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that some terrible, blinding beauty is about to descend and, like the wrath of God, suck [the world] all away, orphan us, deliver us, leave us wondering how exactly we're going to start it all over again."

The plot, modestly scaled, is set in motion by the appearance of Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan (age 23), a beautiful but flawed and directionless young man who's interested in doing "something in the arts." Ethan's brief stay with the couple in their spacious SoHo loft will upend all three lives.

"By Nightfall" is written in a combination of voices: at times there is a third person omniscient narrator, sometimes a second person interlocutor, but principally we are caught within Peter's own ruminations. The lasting effect is a story told through Peter's eyes. While this brings a unity to the novel, it also can be a handicap.
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Format: Hardcover
I thought The Hours, A Home at the End of the World, and Specimen Days were all wonderful. By Nightfall has the same beautiful prose, but it lacks many elements that make the others great.

For one, the characters just aren't that likable. In every other one of his novels, I could find something to relate to or sympathize with in every man, woman, gay, straight, young, old, contemporary, historic person. In By Nightfall, I found Peter to be pathetic, his wife flat, and his brother-in-law a whiny child.

I also like Cunningham for the deep ideas he can effortlessly mix into his stories. In this case, it was more like he was trying to mix a story into his deep idea, and it was unsuccessful. There was too much thinking about life and beauty and not enough life and beauty actually happening. On top of that, the constant musing nature let to redundant vocabulary--evanescent, crepuscular, ineffably. I like a perfect word as much as (if not more than) the next person, but when I start noticing the same words being repeated, that tells me you're trying to stretch a 30-page idea into a 230-page novel. Kind of jarring.

Perhaps I shouldn't fault Cunningham for trying to move on and do something new (based on this novel, perhaps HE is having an existential crisis over the nature of his own art), but at the same time, I really miss the triangular, interweaving stories that spoke more to me than this forceful presentation of a theme.
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Format: Hardcover
I did not find any of the characters, including the often naked young man with the nice ass (God help me) appealing; nor interesting. After endless paragraphs describing in detail the colors of every (or so it seems) neighborhood in New York City, including some of the outer boroughs, the story picks up; although before reaching the end, there is still interrupting, interfering stream of consciousness from not only the protagonist but from the narrator, sounding exactly alike. Without all of this--without the Tom Ford suits and the Prada skirt and the name of every taxi driver--it would have made a good short story. Instead, the endless parade of marching phrases, separated from one another by commas and semicolons--so that the punctuation becomes another character? or perhaps a Greek chorus?--and yet connected through the listing of everything that might make them the same; or different, if you fear death. (And isn't it human to be afraid? Especially of death.) The pseudo-philosophical ramblings on art are tepid and grow tedious (and I majored in art). The openings of parentheses are to lead us into Peter's mind, but when there are (sometimes) five to a sentence, all insipid, they do not close fast enough for me. No thought can be said once but must be doubled, perhaps tripled, with another way of saying exactly the same thing. Still. Each sentence, every word is carefully selected, almost religiously (maybe), as though it were measured by a metronome. The book is WRITTEN. And it is a chore to read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
...and a sigh is just a sigh and unfortunately, By Nightfall is one big sigh. You labor through this short novel and at the end all you can say is who cares. Being a fool for love is only interesting when we care about the fools and in this novel all of the fools are just remote. The writing is so pretentious and silly that it almost makes you angry. The book is also filled with typos, incorrect words and and a couple of glaring mistakes, for instance when we are told Peter is wearing a charcoal polo shirt under a suit, but as he is stripping down in his kitchen he removes his jacket and trousers and unbuttons his shirt. I am sure this all sounds trivial, but so is this novel.
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