I haven't read all that much of Michael Cunningham's work. I liked The Hours well enough, but it hinged on a gimmick, and I might have appreciated it more if Id ever read Mrs. Dalloway (I still havent, and its not on the horizon. Judge me if you must). Cunningham's most recent novel, By Nightfall, stands on its own.
Peter and Rebecca Harris are in that early-midlife phase that can call a lot into question for people; the kids are leaving home, the career may be comfortable but stalled, and youve done well enough that there doesnt seem much to want from life beyond what you already have. They are, as the plot synopsis says, happy enough, particularly when they don't dwell on it too much. However, there are bumps in their road, and Rebecca's little brother Ethan becomes a big one.
By Nightfall hinges on aimless, beautiful Ethan, known as Mizzy, or The Mistake, within his family because he was born late and unexpectedly as his sisters were entering adulthood (he's only a few years older than Peter and Rebecca's daughter, Bea). His visit with Peter and Rebecca is prompted by his recent decision that he wants to do something in art; it's his latest whim in a life seemingly propelled by whims, and Rebecca hopes that her art-dealer husband can be of some help to her brother in determining what that actually might be.
I don't want to discuss much more of the plot of By Nightfall; it's not strongly plot-driven, but the storyline took some turns that I didn't expect, and I don't want spoil the discovery for other readers. However, what made this novel compulsively readable for me was Cunningham's writing - beautifully flowing, evocative and emotionally affecting. Particularly effective was his choice to narrate in third person limited. The only perspective the reader gets is Peter's, and first-person narration might have made him come across as self-involved and self-indulgent; and while the third-person viewpoint doesn't entirely avoid that at times, I felt it rendered him much more sympathetically, and certain events in the story would have had a different impact on me if I hadn't viewed him with that degree of sympathy.
I did not expect By Nightfall to engage and move me as much as it did, and I always appreciate surprises like that.