It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 30 years since the publication of Gail Sheehy’s landmark Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. I read that book soon after its publication, and I can attest that it has been helpful in navigating the decades of my life, especially the 30s and 40s. Now, this is not to say that I have avoided those “predictable crises” along the way, including a classic mid-life crisis that put me in a deep funk. It’s just that I knew what was going on. Life can be scary, and information helps. Still, even though you can understand a crisis from an intellectual perspective, it’s very personal when it’s happening to you.
I thought about Passages after I finished Michael Cunningham‘s new novel, By Nightfall. Forty-something Peter Harris is a high-end art dealer and gallery owner in New York. He has a successful wife, Rebecca, who he married for love. He lives in an enviable space in SoHo, and enjoys the company of the rich and influential. But there are clouds on the horizon. He is struggling to relate to his young adult daughter, feels distanced from his wife, and wonders if his career has reached its apex, with professional stagnancy or decline around the corner.
When Rebecca’s troubled younger brother, Mizzy, comes to live with them, Peter’s midlife blues grow into a fully-bloomed existential crisis.
It’s a common condition when we start to feel the clock ticking on our own mortality. Have we made the right choices? Do we have time to again experience the exhilarating feeling of new love/new career/new life/new insert here.? Have we left something important behind? What is the meaning of all this? And true to midlife crises, there is often a catalyst that becomes an obsessive focus around which our larger existential questions are posed. For Peter, the catalyst is his brother-in-law, Mizzy.
The joy in reading this book, beyond Cunningham’s sublime writing, is wondering if Peter is going to chuck it all, come to terms with his situation, or find renewal within his current life. The joy, for older readers, may be recognizing yourself.
The biggest joy, for me, was the last line of the book. First lines of novels are celebrated and quoted often: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” “I am an invisible man.” “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” No matter how masterful the last line of a book, we stay away from quotations because we don’t want to give anything away.
I’m going to give it away. I’m going to show you the last line of By Nightfall, if you want to see it. Just highlight the area below:
He begins to tell her everything that has happened.
It’s a simple sentence, not particularly artful unto itself, but magnificent in the context of this latest wonder from Cunningham.