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Book Review: ‘Day,’ by Michael Cunningham



DAY, by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s new novel, “Day,” visits a family on April 5 in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — before, during and after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shadows the book although the words “Covid” and “pandemic” never appear.

At the core of the family’s dynamic is a love triangle, more or less platonic. Isabel, a photo editor with a “pugilistic jaw,” feels bad about having lost her erotic connection to her husband, Dan, a former rock ’n’ roller who has now grown “stocky and slightly, voluptuously soft,” but is fantasizing about a comeback. Both she and Dan consider her gay brother, Robbie, a sixth-grade teacher who lives alone in the attic of their brownstone, to be their closest friend.

The novel’s first April day, in 2019, finds Isabel apologizing to Robbie because she and Dan are about to evict him. Their children, a boy and a girl, have grown too old to continue sharing a bedroom, and they need to annex Robbie’s square footage. To soften the blow, Isabel recalls an old daydream. “I keep thinking about that house in the country we were going to buy,” she says. “We were going to have a dozen rooms, and a vegetable garden, and three or four dogs.” Robbie recalls that the idea came from her fifth-grade teacher, whom Isabel remembers as a “hippie.”

The dream is a familiar one in Cunningham’s oeuvre. In his first novel, “A Home at the End of the World,” a gay man, a bisexual man and a straight woman tried to raise a child in an upstate house. When Cunningham started writing fiction about gay and trans characters in the 1990s, queer people, still widely stigmatized, were much more visible in cities than in the countryside, where their apparent absence could be seen, perhaps confusedly, as offering a blank slate. A gay novelist could send his city characters out of town on a utopian impulse, imagining with them, however briefly, that the country might become a refuge where homosexuals and heterosexuals could live together in harmony.