The Covid pandemic is never named but its shadow is subtly present in this exquisitely written new novel from American writer Michael Cunningham. Like his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, Day has a three-part structure. Set mainly in New York on April 5th over the years 2019, 2020 and 2021, the novel charts the before, during and aftermath of an increasingly precarious time in contemporary history. But Cunningham’s focus is not on events in the wider social context but on the inner lives and relationships of a range of compellingly complex characters: married couple Isabel and Dan, their children Nathan and Violet, Isabel’s brother Robbie, Dan’s brother Garth, and Chess, a single mother.
The adult characters, often dissatisfied with the present, either yearn for their more fulfilling pasts or strive for greater autonomy in the future. Relationships fray, careers flounder, and people struggle not to disappoint one another as lovers, siblings and parents. The children are brilliant studies in emotional turbulence and an often unacknowledged, ferocious need to be loved.
Day is remarkable for its psychologically astute understanding of and compassion for its characters; the beauty of its prose; and its intelligent balance of melancholy disillusionment and the muted possibility of hope. One of my picks for the year.
April 5th, 2019: In a cozy brownstone in Brooklyn, the veneer of domestic bliss is beginning to crack. Dan and Isabel, troubled husband and wife, are both a little bit in love with Isabel’s younger brother, Robbie. Robbie, wayward soul of the family, who still lives in the attic loft; Robbie, who, trying to get over his most recent boyfriend, has created a glamorous avatar online; Robbie, who now has to move out of the house – and whose departure threatens to break the family apart. And then there is Nathan, age ten, taking his first uncertain steps toward independence, while Violet, five, does her best not to notice the growing rift between her parents.
April 5th, 2020: As the world goes into lockdown the brownstone is feeling more like a prison. Violet is terrified of leaving the windows open, obsessed with keeping her family safe. Isabel and Dan circle each other warily, communicating mostly in veiled jabs and frustrated sighs. And beloved Robbie is stranded in Iceland, alone in a mountain cabin with nothing but his thoughts – and his secret Instagram life – for company.
April 5th, 2021: Emerging from the worst of the crisis, the family comes together to reckon with a new, very different reality – with what they’ve learned, what they’ve lost, and how they might go on.
From the brilliant mind of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, Day is a searing, exquisitely crafted meditation on love and loss, and the struggles and limitations of family life – how to live together and apart, and maybe even escape the marriage plot entirely.
‘Cunningham is one of our great American writers, and here is another masterpiece … Read it and be changed’ Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less