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By Nightfall




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About The Author

Michael CunninghamMichael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours won both the Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award, and became an Academy Award–winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. An earlier novel, A Home at the End of the World, was recently made into a film,... More

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Reading Group Gold

About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about By Nightfall are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach By Nightfall.

About the Book
Peter and Rebecca Harris, midforties, are prosperous denizens of Manhattan. He’s an art dealer, she’s an editor. They live well. They have their troubles—their ebbing passions, their wayward daughter, and certain doubts about their careers—but they feel as though they’re happy. Happy enough. Until Rebecca’s much younger, look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, short for the Mistake), comes to visit. And after he arrives, nothing will ever be the same again.

This poetic and compelling masterpiece is a heartbreaking look at a marriage and the way we now live. Full of shocks and aftershocks, By Nightfall is a novel about the uses and meaning of beauty, and the place of love in our lives.

About the Author
Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours won both the Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award, and became an Academy Award–winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. An earlier novel, A Home at the End of the World, was recently made into a film, starring Colin Farrell, Dallas Roberts, Sissy Spacek, and Robin Wright Penn. He lives in New York.

1. What were your first impressions of Peter and Rebecca? What aspects of their marriage were presented in the opening scenes as they observed a traffic accident, attended a party, and went to bed?

2. Ethan’s nickname originated as a reference to his parents’ unplanned parenthood so late in life. Did the label shape his impressions of himself, or were his problems inevitable? Did his parents and his sisters, Rosemary, Julianne, and Rebecca, expect too little of him?

3. How did Peter’s and Rebecca’s families influence them well into adulthood? What did Peter and Rebecca offer each other when they were first dating? How did the basis for their attraction change over the years?

4. What is Peter’s role in the lives of the artists he represents, beyond securing a high price for their work? What intangibles does he sell his buyers? What makes him good at his job?

5. How does the concept of leverage play out in By Nightfall? Who are the novel’s most vulnerable and most powerful characters?

6. How does Uta’s philosophy of life different from Peter’s? How does she balance the reality of her role as a businesswoman with the intuitive and emotional aspects of her profession? For her, is there any distinction between her profession and her passions?

7. What does By Nightfall say about making art, and marketing it? How does Peter’s work compare to Rebecca’s in shaping the futures of creative individuals? What new freedoms and challenges does twenty-first-century American culture bring to creative fields, and to our personal lives?

8. Ultimately, what is Bea blaming her father for? Is she right to blame him? What does he teach her to expect from men? When Rebecca worries about her daughter, what fears is she also expressing about her own future?

9. What purposes does sex serve for the novel’s primary characters? How did sexuality shape Rebecca’s self-esteem before and after she was married? What longings is Peter responding to at the moment of the kiss? For Mizzy, does sex present anything more than an opportunity to be manipulative?

10. How does the purpose of marriage evolve throughout Peter and Rebecca’s life together? What reasons do they have for remaining married after Bea has left for college? What identity did marriage create for them in their careers?

11. Michael Cunningham provides us with Peter’s thoughts throughout By Nightfall. How would the novel have unfolded if it had been told from Rebecca’s point of view instead?

12. Is Mizzy a victim or a victimizer, or both? If he were your little brother, would you respond to him the way Rebecca does?

13. The novel concludes with the beginning of an honest dialogue. How much of Peter and Rebecca’s previous talks had been truthful? Had they been honest with themselves? What predictions do you have for the closing line’s conversation and its aftermath?

14. Discuss the novel’s title: What symbolic nightfall exists in the characters’ lives? How does it apply to the concept of aging and other transitions that may seem difficult to navigate in the "dark"?

15. Through his fiction, what has Cunningham shown us about the nature of love and longing? What new facets are revealed in By Nightfall? What role do artists (literary, visual, and otherwise) play in his storylines?

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