I like Michael Cunningham. He’s very clever and goes deep into his characters’ heads. This novel has the kind of The New Yorker-y plot that I usually don’t care for (rich straight couple lead brittle, unfulfilling lives and don’t communicate well) but I did like this book. The main character Peter is a somewhat depressed 44-year old man who is obsessed with beauty in all its forms, but doesn’t feel like he can create it. Instead, he buys and sells it, or tries to—-he’s an art dealer. He’s always hoping to discover an amazing genius, but it never seems to happen. This novel is proof positive that you don’t have to have a “sympathetic character” to make it an enjoyable read because Peter is somewhat selfish and at times comes off as an upper-class twit, but I still liked hearing everything he thought and felt. This writer is very compassionate to his characters.
As the blurb tells you, trouble begins to brew when Peter’s wife’s brother “Mizzy” comes to stay. Mizzy is short for “The Mistake,” so I thought Mizzy would be this sad sack character that everyone puts down. But actually he’s the spoiled and cosseted most-loved member of his family. It turns out the book is about Peter falling in love with Mizzy and seeing him as the beauty he’s been looking for. Given that Mizzy is his much younger brother-in-law whom he’s known since Mizzy was a tiny child and Mizzy is only a few years older than Peter’s daughter, this development made me say “ick.” (Because of the weird incest-y overtones.) However, it didn’t turn out to be very disturbing at all. Cunningham somehow kept it fairly classy.
This may lead you to conclude that my head is in the gutter, but one of the things that interested me most about this book was a really well-done straight sex scene, between Peter and his wife. I was totally sold on it. I just think it’s great that a gay man wrote this scene because A) people are so great; just because you identify as one thing doesn’t mean you’ve never done this other thing, and/or B) writers are so great that maybe they don’t have to even do something in order to describe it, as so many M/M writers who are ladies have claimed. It makes me think of Arnold Bennett describing an execution at the guillotine without ever having seen one, or a biography I read of Patrick O’Brian which gave no indication of O’Brian ever having gone on a sail in his life. Anyway, nicely done, Mr. Cunningham!
My favorite parts were the descriptions of being an art dealer. I kept expecting that the narration would change perspective at some point and we would get the POV of Peter’s wife Rebecca, but that never happened. I think that was good because not everything needs to be understood. There were a lot of small things that were never explained (why was Peter’s daughter so angry? what was the cause of Peter’s constant stomach pains?) and that’s very lifelike.
I read a bunch of the other Goodreads reviews of this book, and I was amused to see that no one is a fan of ALL of Michael Cunningham’s books, and each reviewer likes and dislikes different ones. I’ll just throw my hat in by saying that I really liked A Home At The End of the World and Flesh and Blood, but I didn’t enjoy The Hours.
Book design: Not to my taste. Boring. Ugly cover, thought it was a picture of a dust mop until I really examined it. Maybe I’m too shallow to appreciate it? But it just seems a bit restrained for a book about art and beauty.
What other book does this one remind me of? The Page Turner by David Leavitt.
Theme song: Ode to a Boy by Yazoo.