Mount Pleasant, by Don Gillmor

by

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Here are just a few of the reasons why I approached Mount Pleasant with some anticipation:

— I have an acknowledged affinity for “city” novels, fiction set in neighborhoods of the world’s memorable cities where the urban environment is every bit as important to the book as its characters or plot. Teju Cole’s Open City with its student-level view of contemporary Manhattan would be one example recently reviewed here; Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility is an earlier era, upper-class version of the same city. Novels about London over the centuries would fill a good-sized library and new volumes appear every year — John Lanchester’s Capital and Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo are upscale and downmarket sketches of that metropolis published in 2012. (Note: All four of those reviews appeared here in the last 13 months. Perhaps I should amend “acknowledged affinity” to “near obsession”?)

  • Toronto may not rank with New York and London on the world scale, but as a Canadian it has always held the same attraction as a setting for fiction. Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (sorry — last read by KfC pre-blog, so no review here) and Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown (review coming later this year) are Canadian classics set in historical working-class Toronto neighborhoods. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s Ghosted offers a compelling portrait of the city’s contemporary underbelly; Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge explores some of the darker aspects of Toronto’s reputation as a welcoming destination for immigrants and refugees.
  • I was born and raised in Kitchener, just an hour down the road from Toronto, and have been visiting the city throughout my life. Mrs. KfC and I lived there for a couple of years (2003-2005) on Ardwold Gate in tony Forest Hill. Until a Depression era fire destroyed it, Ardwold was the estate of the Eaton family (scions of Canada’s now-shuttered department store empire).
  • The Eaton family crypt

    The Eaton family crypt

  • There is an arc of upper-class neighborhoods that stretches across the “top” of downtown Toronto, with Rosedale and Moore Park on its east, Forest Hill on the west. Mount Pleasant Cemetery sits like a keystone in that arc — the 200 acres set aside in 1876 are now the final resting place of more than 170,000 ranging from Prime Ministers (William Lyon Mackenzie King) to pianists (Glenn Gould) to plutocrats and philanthropists (that same Eaton family, the Masseys and the Westons all have crypts there). The cemetery is well-known to anyone in Toronto since a major north-south thoroughfare of the same name passes through it.
  • The cemetery supplies the title for this novel and Don Gillmor has the credentials to suggest he is an apt person to be giving it a role in fiction. Mount Pleasant is only his second work of fiction but he is well-known for his non-fiction writing, particularly the award-winning, two-volume Canada: A People’s History
  • Mount Pleasant Cemetery serves the same function as keystone in this novel that it physically does in that upper-class arc that stretches across Toronto. Harry Salter was born and raised in Rosedale — his elderly mother still lives in the mansion where he spent his childhood. Harry and his wife live just south of the arc in one of the working class neighborhoods featured in Ondaatje and Garner’s novels — neighborhoods that have now become gentrified, so they paid more than $500,000 for the fixer-upper they call home.

    And Harry’s father, Dale, who made his fortune as a Bay Street investment advisor, will die of cancer early on in the novel and be buried in Mount Pleasant, cementing that keystone in the story of Harry’s life.

    As the novel opens, Harry is facing that inevitable death, but it at least has an upside: Harry has been spending well beyond his means and risks having to depart the upper-class privileged neighborhoods where he has spent his life. The $1 million he expects to get from the estate should cover his debts — but it becomes a case of hopes raised, hopes dashed.

    Contrary to the popular dictum, Harry’s father had taken his money with him. It was, at any rate, gone. The reading of the will had the giddy outrage of a practical joke. The executor, a terse stranger from one of the large, threatening law firms, revealed Dale to be essentially broke, a shock to both Harry and his sister, and a much bigger shock to Dixie [his divorced father’s final lady friend who was expecting even more than $1 million].

    The three of them sat in the lawyer’s office as he intoned the will’s clauses with appropriate solemnity, accompanied by a paper version handed out with numbers and percentages highlighted. More than half the estate went to Dixie, a fact that was quickly mitigated by the alarmingly small sums involved. Dixie received $7,200. Harry was second, with $4,200. Erin, an enraged and distant third, received $1,100.

    Harry and his wife are already in marital crisis — not just from their shaky economic status, but also facing the difficulties of estrangement from their university student son. So Harry, who spent most of his career as a broadcast journalist before ageism punted him into academia, decides to apply his investigative talents and figure out just where his father’s money went. He has the monetarily-jilted Dixie as a semi-partner in this quest, since she too is convinced something must be amiss.

    So there you have an outline of setting, characters and plot. How well does author Gillmor deliver?

  • On the setting front, he does just fine — but I have to admit that judgment may mainly be a reflection of the anticipation that I took into the book. The way that he describes Rosedale and Harry’s mother’s mansion, his troubled gentrified existence and the keystone aspect of the cemetery were for this reader by far the strongest aspect of the book. Then again, I know the area reasonably well and cannot say how much of a role my own experiences played in my appreciation of his portrayal — there were a lot of very “friendly” reminders that brought back personal memories (if you know Toronto at all, the Five Thieves show up tangentially in the opening paragraph of the book — Harry pays $82 for “organic” lamb).
  • The novel starts to slip when it comes to character. Harry is adequately developed (particularly when he is spending money he doesn’t have on luxuries, like organic lamb not to mention wine, he thinks he can’t do without), but not much more — alas, the rest of the cast tend to be one-dimensional at best.
  • And the plot (the search for the “missing” millions) just doesn’t work at all. I can understand why Gillmor needed one (we can’t have a novel based just on setting and lifestyle) but the weakness of that aspect of the book becomes a significant anchor to the whole enterprise as it tries to move on.
  • I wasn’t disappointed with Mount Pleasant, but I’d have a tough time recommending it — unless you share my going-in bias for a novel that is located in an area of Toronto that I feel I know quite well and was eager to experience in prose. All in all, a promising premise that simply wasn’t successfully realized.

    8 Responses to “Mount Pleasant, by Don Gillmor”

    1. Lisa Hill Says:

      It sounds like it one that many Torontians (is that what you call yourselves?) may like for curiosity value, just because it’s so nice to find your own city realised in a novel, but may not go much further than that. I don’t like crime novels, but I always read Shane Moloney’s ones because they’re set in Melbourne and I do love that!

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        As I noted, I can’t separate how much my own memories influenced my impression, but I think those who don’t know the city would find the story rather thin. Still, I have no complaints with an author’s decision to capture a city he knows.

        (The residents are called ToronTONians.)

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    2. Max Cairnduff Says:

      I note he’s a successful historian. Perhaps he knew the area and people he wanted to write about, then needed a plot to explore them through but because that wasn’t his passion that area of the book flagged.

      Regarding the quote, if you deleted the words “Contrary to the popular dictum, ” I think that first sentence would be much punchier, and the reference to the popular dictum would still be clear.

      Mount Pleasant sounds a bit like the Necropolis in Glasgow, save perhaps in a tonier neighbourhood (though the Necropolis is so huge it probably touches on some such).

      Since I don’t know Toronto I’ll have to pass on this. I must say though, Cabbagetown is a great title for a novel so I’m looking forward to hearing more about that one.

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        While I have no evidence to support the opinion, I am inclined to agree that setting and character came first for the author and that that is why the plot wasn’t quite as good.

        As for your observation on the prose, Gillmor has done a fair bit of broadcast work and I think the style often reflects that — it perhaps is not as punchy as it might be. Having said that, I did appreciate the rhythm of his prose — it moves at a steady, comfortable pace and, since I was somewhat preoccupied with the personal memories that it was raising, I appreciated that.

        I wouldn’t push this one on you. Cabbagetown (as I remember it and it has been many years since I last read it) is more likely to speak both to your interests and experience.

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    3. herschelian Says:

      Intrigued by this review – as I lived for 25+ years in Highgate (north London) which has an amazing cemetery (Karl Marx et al), I rather like reading books with connections to such ‘fields of the dead’. Now I live in Beijing, and we are just approaching Qing Ming Jie aka ‘Tomb Sweeping Festival’. Think that I may well read this despite your reservations on plot – I’ve never read anything set in Toronto, about time I remedied that…!

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I am pleased to have sparked your interest and I think your references to HIghgate and the Tomb Sweeping Festival are appropriate to the book — reminders that generations did come before us.

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    4. deluxcanuck Says:

      I will read it just because, like you, I’m very familiar with the area. My in-laws lived on Bayview & Blythwood for many years and my mother-in-law is now a resident of Mount Pleasant cemetery😦 Gilllmore is a good non-fiction writer but I’ve never read any of his fictional offerings. I’ll try and be open minded, especially as I am Albertan by birth😉

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      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        A couple weeks on, I would say that the good bits are moving forward and the parts that did not impress me are fading. If you like Gillmor’s non-fiction work, I suspect you will like this as well.

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