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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote. In his latest novel, DAY, Michael Cunningham has underscored that trenchant observation in an intimate, wise portrait of a cluster of New Yorkers whose lives he examines on the same day --- April 5th --- in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

At the center of the story are Dan Byrne, a former “stoned rocker” who is trying to revive his modest career after overcoming drug addiction; his wife, magazine editor Isabel Walker; and their two children, Nathan and Violet, who are 10 and 5 when the novel opens on the morning of April 5, 2019. They inhabit a Brooklyn brownstone whose attic apartment is home to Isabel’s gay younger brother Robbie, the survivor of a series of failed relationships, who inexplicably turned down his acceptance to medical school in favor of becoming a sixth-grade history teacher.

"Anyone who believes that great fiction has the power to hold a mirror up to what it means to be human will relish this fine novel."

From the novel’s opening pages, Cunningham makes it clear that his focus is on the complex set of relationships within this family grouping, including Violet, who “began disliking her mother a year or so ago,” and Nathan, who’s “unencumbered by gratitude or guilt” for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon him. Despite the mutual love Isabel and Dan share for Robbie --- both consider him their closest friend --- they’ve made the decision to ask him to leave the apartment, and he’s in the process of searching for a new one.

Meanwhile, Robbie and Isabel lovingly curate an Instagram page for an idealized fictional character they’ve named Wolfe, a gay pediatric resident who’s “both fabulous and obtainable, a regular guy with the volume turned up a little, the lights on full” and “[o]ne of those guys who appear not only to be getting what they want but to want what they’re getting.” In short, he seems to be an object of wish fulfillment not merely for his more than 3,400 followers but also for both of his creators.

Cunningham adds more complications by introducing Chess, the mother of an infant boy and a professor of literature at Columbia, and her longtime friend and sperm donor Garth, a struggling artist who’s Dan’s brother and who’s pressing against Chess’ resistance to be more involved in the life of the child he fathered.

In the novel’s middle section, set on the afternoon of April 5, 2020, Cunningham’s characters are just beginning to grapple with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when New York City was the epicenter of the crisis. Their unease will evoke readers’ memories of that time. Working from home, Isabel “dislikes feeling abandoned to her own life,” while Dan “relinquishes his domestic good spirits and grows more emotionally febrile, more withdrawn,” leaving it to Isabel “to reassure, to listen, to act as if she herself is unafraid.” Robbie has moved to a mountaintop cabin in Iceland, a landscape “possessed of a summoned quality,” where he maintains Wolfe’s Instagram presence and writes letters he’s unsure any of his loved ones will ever read. Chess and Garth continue to wrestle over their relationship with each other and with their son in the fraught environment of lockdowns and social distancing.

By the time DAY reaches its climax on the evening of April 5, 2021, Cunningham charts a subtle shift in the geometry of the characters’ relationships. All but Robbie gather for a sort of mid-COVID reunion at a lakeside cabin where Isabel has moved, even as she understands that Dan “knows how grateful she is, as she knows he knows about the sacrifices, the generosities, the fatigued forgiveness they can offer to each other.” Chess, in turn, contemplating a relocation to California to take a teaching job at Berkeley, understands “she’ll have to be, unwillingly, part of a family that includes a father who’s not quite up to it, whether he lives a borough or a continent away.” It’s even time to bid farewell to Wolfe, in a final post acknowledging “the end of This and the beginning of That.”

All this reveals the quality of Michael Cunningham’s insight into the intricacies of our daily family interactions. But a considerable portion of the pleasure of reading his novels lies in the gracefulness of his sentences, the beauty of his fluid prose, and his gift for metaphor, as when he notices the “rags of snow still white in the shadows” or “the lake blue-black under skittish patches of paper-thin ice.” And then there are scenes like this one, capturing Violet’s gaze:

“The woods are alive with the spirits of animals and the dreams of trees, most active at night, when the dreams and the spirits are most fully awake, when they drift across the forest floor, murmuring in wordless languages they themselves don’t fully understand, searching, confused, as the planets shine down from among the leaves and the houses glow so faintly as to be invisible to anyone who does not live in them.”

Some readers may ask why they should take the time to read a 250-page book about a group of privileged characters and what some would dismiss glibly as their “First World problems.” But as he demonstrated in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, THE HOURS, Cunningham’s supreme talent lies in his ability to map, with honesty and empathy, the storms and sunny days that make up the weather of his characters’ interior lives and to allow us to connect their struggles with our own. Even the children, Nathan and Violet, are fully realized creations whose effort to make sense of their own young lives is worthy of our compassion.

Anyone who believes that great fiction has the power to hold a mirror up to what it means to be human will relish this fine novel.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 17, 2023

by Michael Cunningham

  • Publication Date: November 14, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0399591346
  • ISBN-13: 9780399591341