How, other than through clandestine sex, does a married woman of a certain age find excitement in midtown Toronto during a record-breaking heat wave? That is the dilemma that Don Gillmor, an accomplished journalist and winner of a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, sets himself in telling the story of Beatrice Billings.
Back in the day when magazines proliferated in this country, Gillmor was one of the best freelance contributors around. Many of the skills he developed then are showcased in his latest novel, Breaking and Entering, especially the way he sketches backgrounds, subtly introduces themes, and keeps the narrative clipping along. I don’t know why he chose to write from a female perspective or to use unlawful entry as a narrative device, but the more I read, the clearer the analogy between journalism and thievery became. What does a journalist do, particularly a profile writer like Gillmor, if not to penetrate a subject’s public persona to reveal their inner traits — warts and all?
Set in the mid-2010s — after the global financial meltdown and on the verge of #MeToo — Breaking and Entering focuses on Bea’s mid-life crisis. At forty-nine, she owns an art gallery, although her involvement seems more dilatory than passionate. The long-time wife of a going-through-the-motions history professor named Sanger (Sang for short), she is also the primary advocate for her demented eighty-six-year-old mother, a resident in an expensive retirement facility. Bea’s loving duty is complicated by her argumentative older sister, who lives in Chicago but insists she knows what’s best for their widowed parent. Bea also has a disaffected son, Thomas, who is a first-year student at McGill University, although how he earned a place there, given the entrance requirements, is a mystery. Even Bea thinks Thomas may have morphed from “helpless” to “useless.” Still, having him in Montreal is a convenient device to shift the narrative occasionally from Toronto.
Bea and Sang’s closest male friends, equally disaffected academics, are an even sorrier lot. Roger, a chain-smoking philosopher, is trying to rejig himself as a real estate agent, having been forced to resign from the university after propositioning one undergraduate too many. Philip, a conference trotter whose main achievement is writing successful grant proposals, has been working on a biography of Wittgenstein for eons. But has anybody seen, let alone read, his magnum opus? As for the wives, they are grinding through lacklustre days before dutifully slapping dinner on the table.
Both Bea and Sang have survived the hectic years of their marriage, when they were scrambling to raise a child, establish their careers, and build equity in the housing market. Now, they should be expanding their lives with absorbing work projects, volunteer commitments in the community, travel, and dynamic social engagements. Instead, they are stagnant and snarly.
Money doesn’t seem to be an issue, so why does Sang head out one evening a week to teach an extra class, one that doesn’t appear in the course calendar? Exactly. In fact, teaching depresses Sang. Partly it’s the routine, but mostly it is the students. Those who do show up to class are often stoned or watching porn on their laptops while their professor meanders through his ancient lecture notes. “Do you have any idea what it takes to go in there, day after day, and stand up in a room and talk to yourself?“ Sang whines at Bea. “It’s a formula for madness,” he insists, particularly when compared with how she spends three days a week. “You sit in that gallery and listen to music and read your novel and wait for some halfwit to buy a painting of a dead cow for ten grand and you think that’s the world.” Ah, the saga of a long-married privileged couple as they await his pension cheque.
Is it any wonder that Bea, “sitting in her gallery in deadly June,” as bored as any of her husband’s students, googles “escape”? Doing so eventually leads her to an instructional video titled How to Pick a Lock with a Hairpin, which persuades her to acquire a kit on Amazon and join a locksmith club, mendaciously telling her husband that she’s now part of a reading group. Supposedly, they’re discussing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, a fantasy about a couple with memory issues who are searching for their lost son.
Whoa, I thought. A locksmith club? What’s that? Sang wonders the same thing, many pages later, when he and Bea confront each other about their extramarital pursuits — he with a slightly younger member of the university’s administrative staff and she as an intruder into other people’s lives. “Who joins a lock-picking club?” he insists. “I’ve never even heard of this.” To which she retorts, “There are a lot of things you haven’t heard of, Sang.”
There are, indeed, locksmith clubs, as a quick Internet search will attest, but Sang raises a good point and one that bothered me about Bea. Why does she seem more like a casual employee than a hustling art dealer? Who are her clients, whether the art lovers she cultivates as customers or the artists she represents? And why would a gallery owner risk her reputation and her business by breaking into houses?
Figuring out what drives private lives behind the camouflage of public facades becomes an obsession for Bea. She is never caught in the act, if you ignore the raccoon nesting in the attic of an empty house, but her snooping gives her a rush and provides us with some of the most interesting passages in the novel.
Bea’s goal isn’t thievery, except for one designer dress early on. Like a philanderer, she is addicted to the conquest. Breaking into other people’s houses is a metaphor for finding out their secrets: the affluent couple with soaring credit card debt, the pair who had imported Nembutal as part of a suicide pact. Sometimes the lock picking is metaphorical rather than material, as when she explores the desiccated heart of her own marriage and uncovers a deeply buried family secret by patiently slipping through the portcullis sealing off entry into her poor demented mother’s past. Presumably this is how life will continue for Bea, until she too, is stuck in an institution waiting for the final escape: death.
Many of us know people like Bea and her coterie, and we may even recognize some of their traits when we glance in the mirror as we brush our thinning hair in the morning or look at how the wrinkles have turned our skin into spiderwebs. Gillmor is adept at capturing the zeitgeist with sweeping brush strokes and vivid references. As he writes early in Breaking and Entering, “Everyone had trouble sleeping, another silent epidemic, like pornography or debt. But there was an even quieter epidemic, an epic numbing, everyone whittled by time and technology and unhappy commutes and weather that evoked an Old Testament God with too much time on His hands.”
Gillmor’s people don’t always resonate as nuanced characters. But they are nonetheless engaging, especially as satirical examples of such ennui. And because of that, I look forward to his next novel.