Michael Cunningham has used three timelines to great effect in his novels Specimen Days and The Hours, his acclaimed homage to Mrs. Dalloway. He does so once again in Day, which follows a Brooklyn family on the same April day over three years: 2019, 2020 and 2021.
As Day opens, Isabel and Dan, in early midlife, are muddling through an ordinary morning with their school-age kids, Nathan and Violet. Isabel is a creative director in an industry that has mostly evaporated, and Dan is a former rocker who still yearns for the spotlight. Isabel’s brother, Robbie, teaches sixth grade history and lives in their attic bedroom. Though the point of view roves among characters and occasionally out over the Brooklyn landscape, it’s Robbie who forms the center of the novel. Robbie’s feeling regret about his ex, Oliver, and about his long-ago decision to turn down medical school. Now he’s about to make a big change: Isabel has asked him to move out. Everyone’s floundering, including secondary characters Garth (Dan’s brother) and his ex Chess, who struggle to navigate their new status as parents. The only one who’s not floundering is Wolfe, Robbie’s Instagram persona—a perfect, though fictional, gay man.
The novel’s middle section takes place a year later, on an April day during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, with Robbie stranded in Iceland, Isabel trying to manage her worries about her kids and her marriage, and Dan starting to write songs again. This section incorporates emails, texts, letters and stretches of unadorned dialogue, including a heartbreaking phone conversation between Isabel and her dad. One year later, in April 2021, the cast of characters gathers upstate, each changed in their place in life and in their relationships with one another.
Despite contemporary details like Instagram follows, Zoom school and long text exchanges, Day has a dreamy, timeless feel. Using gorgeous, often heightened prose, Cunningham offers intimate glimpses of weighty moments instead of big scenes to examine the family’s strands of connection and disconnection, along with the ripple effects of the pandemic. Day may be a spare, short novel, but it’s a novel that asks to be read meditatively, rather than rushed through.