By Nightfall

Arifa Akbar in The Independent:

City Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” claimed the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. With this ominous opening sentiment begins Michael Cunningham's contemporary New York novel about art, ageing and mid-life crisis. It deals with the changeable nature of beauty as that bright shiny thing that must be possessed, as well as being a signifier of transience and loss. For Peter Harris, a forty-something gallerist whose stock in trade has been the pursuit of beauty, its ephemeral quality becomes synonymous with the emotional staleness that he feels has entered his once-vital marriage. His relationship is by no means dead, and Rebecca, his wife of two decades who was once the most sought-after girl in town has grown only a little less beautiful and no less dynamic, but she has changed over the years.

Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 novel The Hours, which was delivered in a narrative stream-of-consciousness ensemble by three women. Here he chooses to tell the story from the single point of view of a jaded husband. The result is an intimate understanding of Peter as a flawed, not always likeable central character. In presenting Peter's fear of ageing, in an ageing marriage, Cunningham captures both the shallow vanities and the emotional depth of this anxiety. Peter “can't help noticing her [Rebecca's] sallowness, the wiry white-threaded unruliness of her morning hair. Die young. Stay pretty. Blondie, right?” he thinks, with an edge of disdain. At other times, his reflections are profound. Thinking back to the Rebecca of his (and her) youth, he realises “here is the Rebecca who no longer exists”.

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