— 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”?)
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?
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.