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— Aritha van Herk, February 12, 2005

The first question Catherine Gildiner is asked by those who confuse books with reality is, “Did you murder your husband?”

When, tongue-in-cheek, I ask her the same question, she laughs and hastens to assure me that no, despite the character in her new novel Seduction, who has killed her husband, she has no such act in her closet.

On the other hand, based on her long experience as a therapist, Gildiner found that she always liked the murderers best. When I ask her why, she tells me it is because “murderers usually make a mistake at only one moment in time,” while people who commit and repeat other offences are less trustworthy, recidivist and thus more determined law-breakers.

I am, of course, fascinated. We are all fascinated by crime, and readers of Seduction (Knopf Canada, 486 pages, $34.95), will be compelled and intrigued by the mystery that she frames and then unravels in the novel.

Gildiner became a household name with her memoir, Too Close to the Falls, about growing up in gothic southern Ontario. Her style was sparse and clear and the memoir successfully combined a child’s sensibility with an adult’s wisdom.

Now she has turned her pen to fiction, but given her background and experience, Gildiner would never be satisfied with an uncomplicated plot. From the first sentence of Seduction, “It’s really embarrassing to admit, but I forget why I killed my husband,” we undertake a fascinating journey with a woman who has been charged, found guilty, and imprisoned for that very crime of passion (or, perhaps, reason).

A clinical psychologist, Gildiner has worked for years with motive and memory, with mystery and manners. Many will recognize her as the author of Chatelaine‘s regular psychological advice column. Despite turning to writing, she continues to practise, and her knowledge of therapy shapes much of this novel.

Indeed, with a cast of characters who wrestle with a mystery through various psychological theories and approaches, Seduction almost reads as a mini-treatise about the effects and spillovers of “the talking cure.”

I ask her if she thinks that the detective and the analyst are two sides of the same coin, and she indicates that yes, they are, with the analyst serving as a detective of the mind, looking for clues in subtle behaviours or Freudian slips.

Freud is a huge presence in this novel, not only through his daughter Anna (a real person retooled here as a fictional character), but also through his history, his rivals and his influences. Gildiner spent years working toward a PhD on the influence of Darwin on Freud, and her lengthy and exhaustive research is evident in this book, where both those mighty men leave their fingerprints on the pages.

Seduction is not a simple-minded book. Gildiner’s intellectual interests provide a complicated frame for the story of a woman who has murdered her husband and done her time, and who then is granted parole along with the task of solving a psychological mystery. That mixture of interior conflict in tandem with a fast-paced thriller that travels from Canada to Vienna, to London and New York, and then back to Toronto makes for compelling reading.

Kate, the protagonist of Seduction, is not so much running away from the crime that dogs her footsteps as she is trying to run toward a new life. But as any armchair psychologist can assert, escaping the past is not as easy as it might seem.

And what is more tempting than a mystery novel that shifts from the cafes of Vienna to the Isle of Wight and then to the Plaza Hotel? Only a novel that includes Freud and Darwin, along with an assortment of sociopaths, psychopaths and chronic narcissists.

Kate’s sidekick detective, an ex-con called Jacky, adds flavour to the stew as a cigarette-smoking, not-to-be-trusted accomplice. As Kate’s foil, he reminds the reader that she is both emotionally vulnerable and capable of sustained anxiety; he is translator to her obsessions.

But the most interesting elements of the novel, and of speaking with Gildiner, are the nuggets of information about Freud and his milieu. She tells me that her editor was worried that the book was too engrossed in Freudian details, that it tried to convey too much information about that larger-than-life character.

In fact, Freud’s presence in this mystery is compelling, so much so that he and his daughter almost take over. And despite our quick and current rejection of Freud and his theories, Gildiner is right when she says that he and his concepts are very much a part of our zeitgeist. We toss around terms like “the unconscious” or talk about “a slip of the tongue” without thinking twice about their originator.

Gildiner does not apologize for her fascination with Freud and his world. Both Freud and Darwin were complex men, with their own psychological baggage. “Imagine,” she says, “Darwin had economic freedom but Freud saw 12 patients a day, and then wrote all night! Exhausting!”

Her own metaphorical incarceration, she asserts, came during the years when she was holed up in her carrell in the Robarts library (at the University of Toronto), reading and writing her thesis.

“This was back in the era when people knocked on the door and you gave them slips of paper with your book requests, so you were in there working in a tiny cell of a room. But I had three children in diapers, too, so wherever I went, it was a lock-up.

“We all,” she laughs, “imprison ourselves, and writing a PhD can be equivalent to a prison sentence, doing time. At the same time, overwhelmed by the demands of contemporary life, we might fantasize about being in jail, being in a place where we can close a cell door and read in solitude.”

I confess that this fantasy appeals to me, and Gildiner rejoins, “Actually, being in jail is no solitary escape because, first of all, you have to do some form of work, and secondly, the people who are there with you might not be the most intellectual companions.” So much for that.

Even more interesting is her take on Anna, Freud’s daughter, who is an active character in the novel. The fictional Kate, like the real Anna, was raised by her father, and Gildiner tells me that she is interested in how such characters are altered by not spending much time with girls and women.

However, Gildiner is careful to stress that she imagined her version of Anna rather than researching her life exhaustively. Anna, who devoted herself totally to children who were the same age as she was when she was analyzed by her father, is a figure much-discussed and disagreed over by scholars who continue to propose various theories. But Gildiner ventures no nervousness about making Anna a character in a fiction.

“I wanted to create an Anna Freud I had respect for,” she says, “and I do respect her.”

The distinction between real and fictional is perhaps blurred in this novel, but the presence of historical figures who serve as real touchstones in this world of analysis and confession only makes Seduction more engrossing. After all, what better setting than the romance of Vienna and London coloured by the history of analysis?

Nevertheless, Gildiner is no apologist for psychotherapy and present in the novel are some sharp critiques of incompetent practices by psychiatrists. When I ask her about that reading of her profession, she talks about the unpredictable outcomes of the work, and how difficult it is to measure effectiveness. And the frequent lack of credentials worries her: “You can call yourself a therapist if you’re a shoe salesman.”

Given that tough perspective, what does she think of current depictions of psychiatrists in popular culture? I cite Tony Soprano’s therapist and Gildiner laughs. “She’s a bit too seductive. I’d tell her not to wear short skirts and to get behind the desk. But she asks the right questions and her investigation of his anxiety is effective because she chooses to be part of the social contract rather than succumbing to his structure.”

The book’s mantra is that everyone has something to hide, and concealment and revelation become part of the mystery, the story behind every escape, punishment and redemption. Ultimately, Seduction is a revealing and tantalizing thriller about motivation.

Why the title? “Because,” says Gildiner, “we are always seducing other people, always trying to seduce other people into believing our strengths and ignoring our failures. That’s human nature.”

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