Rebecca Dinerstein has an MFA in fiction from New York University. The Sunlit Night is her first novel. I tend to approach first novels by MFA graduates with a certain amount of mistrust. The writing may be stunning—such descriptions! such metaphors! such similes!—while the characters and stories are juvenile and banal. Unhappy first love. College angst. Dysfunctional family. Each of these subjects of course can be literature, but a 24-year-old MFA graduate usually does not have enough life experience, skillfully expressed as it may be, to bring interesting depths to her work. That apparently is not Dinerstein's problem.
The Sunlit Night has two protagonists, Frances and Yasha. Frances is 21, a recent art school graduate, at loose ends when in the first pages of the book she breaks up with her wealthy boyfriend. She narrates her own story.
Yasha is 17, the son of a Russian immigrant baker with a shop in Brighton Beach, and a mother who apparently remained in Russia ten years earlier. Dinerstein tells Yasha's side of the story in third person. The shift from first to third person point of view is seamless and gives the novel a depth and richness it would not have otherwise had.
While the story begins in New York City—Frances, her sister Sarah, and her parents share a two-room Manhattan apartment; Yasha and his father live above the bakery in Brooklyn—the action shifts to Lofoten, an archipelego of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle and warmed by the Gulf Stream. The scene is both exotic and convincing; Dinerstein is the author of a bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems, so she sounds as if she is writing from lived experience. For example, picked almost at random:
"The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it... I saw the landscape in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches and the sand made the water Bermuda-green. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village—menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace."
How and why the American girl and the Russian-American boy end up on the same small island in northernmost Norway is both moving and plausible. Neither are characters dropped from Mars (individuals with no parents, siblings, or friends). Both have parents and lives beyond the island; both have challenges with which they must cope. Frances's parents, disapproving of Sarah's fiancee, refuse to go to her wedding and decide themselves to separate. Yasha's father dies and his mother shows up on the island with her lover.
Because there is no evil to overcome, no malevolent menace to be defeated, the thread running through The Sunlit Night is a profound question: How can one live in this world of other people? I thoroughly enjoyed and was rewarded by living in Rebecca Dinerstein's world, a world in which during a certain time of the year the sun never sets.