Families – can’t live with them, can’t live without them…

Review: Vivien Horler

Day, by Michael Cunningham (4th Estate)

If your family have ever driven you mad, you’ll know the feeling. Sort of can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Or as a friend said at her (divorced) husband’s funeral: “You were impossible to live with, but never impossible to love.”

Dan and Isabel and their two children, Nathan, 10, and Violet, 5, live in Brooklyn, New York. Isabel works as a magazine picture editor and Dan, once a not-very successful rocker, is a house-husband.

Also living with them is Robbie, Isabel’s younger gay brother, who has not been lucky in love. He has created a fictitious alter ego, encouraged by Isabel, called Wolfe, who is a paediatrician, good looking and the kind of guy everyone fancies.

Robbie posts regular updates on Wolfe and his gilded life, illustrated with pictures he nicks off the internet. Wolfe has a great apartment, is devoted to his work, and considers buying charming country cottages.

By contrast, Robbie is looking for an apartment, but is battling to find somewere livable that he can afford on his high school teacher’s salary. And he has to move, because Dan and Isabel need his room for Nathan.

The novel opens on a weekday early spring morning in April 2019, and details the family’s morning routine of getting up, fed, dressed and dashing off to school and work.

When Isabel and Nathan have gone, the doorbell goes. It’s Chess, with her baby Odin. The baby was helpfully fathered by Dan’s brother Garth, as a favour to Chess. While the plan was always for Garth to be part of Odin’s life, it was definitely not part of the plan for Garth to fall in love with Chess.

All the characters in this book are rounded and we learn a lot about their inner lives, but they do tend overthink things. Isabel is depressed, weeping on the subway, watching her chosen career begin to disappear as people stop buying magazines. She fantasises about getting on a train and just leaving, without a word to anyone.

Dan meanwhile  is hoping for a rockstar comeback, and composes new songs which he sings for Isabel and Robbie, who listen politely.

Violet is a force of nature, while Nathan really would prefer it if his parents and sister weren’t around at all.

And that is pretty much the end of part one of Day. The next part is set a year later, in April 2020, in early lockdown. Just before lockdown Robbie and Wolfe went on a six-week trip to Iceland, where Robbie is staying in a cabin on a mountain, and sending Wolfe off on hikes. But now Robbie is trapped a long way from home.

Meanwhile Dan, Isabel and the kids are stuck at home, and although there is a bit more space with Robbie gone, they all miss him dreadfully.

And then we get to part three. It  is April 2021 and all has changed. Isabel has left Dan and is living in the country. Turns out she needed more space than Robbie’s room.

But now they’re all joining her for a weekend, for a sad family occasion. There are tensions, between the parents and children, between Chess and Garth, and between Dan and Isabel.

Despite this, they are a family, for better or worse, and despite loss and parting, despite teenage angst, there is love.

Michael Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Hours, which was made into an Oscar-wnning film. He is a beautiful, thoughtful writer, and Day is a wonderful portrait of a modern middle-class family.

  • Day is one of Exclusive Books’s selections for its Christmas Catalogue.

One thought on “Families – can’t live with them, can’t live without them…

  1. David Bristow

    Me, my partner, my ex-wives, brothers and all their current dysfuntionals and exes and all the Children. Annual Boxing Day braai, very well named. 🙂


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