In this lyrical, outstanding new novel (his first in a decade!), the lives of a New York City family upturned by Covid gets captured across three April days, each a year apart. Cunningham’s brilliant third-party narration lets you delve into what each character thinks and feels, and by doing so captures for the reader an intimacy and entanglement that often mystifies the other characters.
At the heart of the family is Isabel, a photo editor for an elite but slowly dying magazine as the world of coverage moves online, and her close brother Robbie, who turned down elite med schools to become a public school teacher which he’s now come to deeply regret as he hits his late 30’s. Isabel feels stuck in her life as a working Mom and sole support for her family, while her husband Dan takes on primary care responsibilities for their two kids while dreaming of reviving his former lackluster rock/singer career. Their son Nathan’s a pre-teen who’s awkward, resentful of his parents, and struggling to maintain friendships with “cool” boys who are rapidly outgrowing him as they mature more quickly than him. His isolation from his peers during Covid hits him hard, as he struggles with online school as well as relentless boredom. Their precocious daughter Violet both prances seeking constant attention and approval, while harboring an intense inner life where she perceives some alphabet letters to be malevolent, she sees ghosts, and she’s fearfully convinced that Covid will come to get the family through any open window.
Robbie, who has struggled with love as a gay man in NYC as well as struggles financially on his paltry teacher’s salary, has been living in a small attic apartment of Isabel’s house. He’s best friends with Dan, on whom he’s had a crush since teen-hood, and he’s a great hands on uncle to Violet and Nathan. But the upstairs apartment is now needed for Robbie who’s been unhappily sharing a room with his younger sister. This ignites a deep identity crisis in Robbie. Meanwhile, Robbie has created a fictional Instagram character, Wolfe, based on a make-believe older brother that he and Isabel came up with in childhood, who takes on a virtual life of his own as Robbie steals photos from other’s accounts to craft Wolfe’s visual life.
On the side, there’s Dan’s brother Garth, a bad-boy artist who’s never been able to sell his works, and Garth’s best friend from college, Chess, with whom he’s fathered a son via sperm donation. Suddenly Garth wants to play the Dad role, despite his ongoing irresponsibility, and has also taken a romantic interest in Chess, who remains detached and not interested.
All this culminates in a tragic Covid death which sends its splinters of profound loss throughout the family.
The writing is so beautiful, so poetic, and so well-crafted that as soon as I finished the last page I wanted to read the whole thing again just to luxuriate in the truths that Cunningham so eloquently conjures up.
Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for an advanced reader’s copy.