This short novel revisits the characters of Wright’s earlier novel, October. Readers might want to read this latter book first though they might then find Nightfall repetitive because passages from October are directly inserted. On the other hand, October does, as the author’s note in Nightfall states, “clarify the relationship between James and Odette at quite different stages in their lives.”
James Hillyer is a 76-year-old widower and retired professor. Despondent after the death of his daughter, he starts thinking about happier times in the past. He decides to try and find his first love, Odette Huard, whom he last saw in Gaspé, Quebec, in 1944. The two of them do reconnect and start a new relationship after 62 years.
Chapters are narrated from various viewpoints (James, Odette, Odette’s developmentally challenged sister, Odette’s former boyfriend) but always in third person. This narrative structure allows the reader to see events, like the first meeting between James and Odette, from the perspective of both characters.
This approach, however, has a drawback. There is considerable repetition. For example, we learn, in one of Odette’s chapters, that she worked at the Green Mermaid when she was young; then in a conversation with James, she gives him that same information. Frequently, things are mentioned via a character’s thoughts and then repeated via dialogue.
One of the aspects I most enjoyed is comparing the elderly characters with their younger versions. They have had numerous life experiences, but both James and Odette are much like their young selves. When James first hears Odette’s voice on the phone, he comments, “Hints of the old Odette. Temperaments never change. We are what we were, only in old bodies” (23). Odette remains blunt and worldly; James is sedate and continues to have “a rather melancholic side” (160).
What is also emphasized is that though the two are old and their expectations have been tempered by time and life, they have the same emotions as the young. They want companionship and love and even sex, that “old itch” (103). Odette comments that, “it was good to have the comfort of someone to love and to share whatever time was left to them” (165). Both are aware that they are in their twilight years, but they hope they “would have some time together. And it must be time well spent.” And isn’t that a lesson for everyone?
The book is a short, easy read, a meditation on love and aging. It suggests that people, regardless of their age, are capable of being happy. James comments that “’happiness is largely a matter of temperament, a disposition or attitude, a genetic inheritance. It helps, of course, if the circumstances in your life are agreeable; if you’re not worried about, say, money or health. . . . I do believe that our culture is obsessed with happiness and people try too hard to find it. I sometimes think happiness finds you, and you don’t need to look for it all the time. . . . It could come from something as simple as listening to, say, a cardinal singing in a tree on a spring morning’” (159 – 160). And isn’t that, too, a lesson for everyone?