The first line of Michael Cunningham’s latest novel reads: “The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” The Mistake --- or Mizzy, as he is often referred to --- is the nickname given to Ethan, the younger brother of Rebecca Harris. Rebecca and her art dealer husband, Peter, are 40-something, upper-class Soho dwellers in modern-day Manhattan, and the appearance of Ethan (a.k.a. The Mistake) will test their relationships in ways none of them ever would have seen coming.
"Michael Cunningham has done an admirable job of pitting creativity versus internal urges with all of the complex characters in this tale."
Ethan is much younger than his middle-aged sibling and, at 23 years old, lives in a different world from the one inhabited by Peter and Rebecca. Cunningham, in his usual stunning prose and magical way with words, describes the landscape of their world to such a degree that a character as unconventional and unpredictable as Ethan could very well rock their lives off of their neatly constructed foundations.
Peter and Rebecca have been going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, and to say that their relationship is loveless and trite would not be too far from the truth. Peter is struggling to entertain new, hip artists to his gallery and business while Rebecca spends her days working as an editor. However, neither of them are fulfilled or happy with their jobs, and their relationship reflects the lethargy that many present-day Big Apple dwellers are going through in the post-9/11 world. They have a broken, long-distance relationship with their only child, Bea, who is a bartender living with a roommate they know nothing about somewhere in the suburbs of Boston. Cunningham very aptly conveys the dysfunctional upper-class New York City family to a tee.
Fans of Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning effort, THE HOURS, a novel based on the life and work of Virginia Woolf, will not find many literary comparisons here. For those who need their classic literary fix, there are a few obscure references to Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina that are apropos for the characters in BY NIGHTFALL. The most complex character here is Peter. He is torn by his loveless marriage, broken relationship with his only child, the production --- or lack thereof --- from his artists, and the unnatural attraction he suddenly feels for his much younger brother-in-law.
It is the relationship that develops between Peter and The Mistake that is the core of BY NIGHTFALL. Cunningham gives glimpses of homoerotic feelings in Peter’s past, but they come to fruition in the form of current feelings for the young man now inhabiting his apartment. While home early from work one day, Peter discovers that Ethan is indeed still a drug user as he overhears him arranging a drop-off from a local dealer. Peter takes Ethan with him to see a client in Connecticut who he is showing a new, controversial art piece to, and it is during this visit that they consummate their feelings for each other. This sends Peter reeling as he is unsure about the validity of Ethan’s feelings for him, and whether or not they are genuine or just a way to keep Peter silent about the fact that The Mistake has fallen off the wagon again and is back into drugs.
Ethan represents the irresponsible friend many of us know --- someone who cannot help himself from committing immoral, selfish acts. Peter, however, is a willing participant in these events and may be courting his own destruction as a means of getting out from under a life he no longer wants. The subject matter in BY NIGHTFALL is challenging, and Michael Cunningham has done an admirable job of pitting creativity versus internal urges with all of the complex characters in this tale. These are not characters who are very likable --- but their story is intriguing, and, like an infectious soap opera, it’s hard to look away from them.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on December 26, 2010