- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

By Richard Mason
Knopf, $25.95, 416 pages

This book, while far more “worth” than “trouble,” is not a near-perfect reading experience. The third novel by the author of the much-praised “The Drowning” and “Us,” it swings from realism to near-fantasy, subtlety to oversimplification, and from enjoyably unpredictable twists to ho-hum plot resolution. And yet … and yet … I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Perhaps that’s what’s meant by the term “raw talent.”

Eloise McAllister, daughter of Joan, the other half of the book’s central duo, is a successful hedge-fund manager for a three-person London firm that does very well, thank you. In fact, it does so well that as the book opens she is helping her 80-year-old mother choose a very expensive assisted living facility. Actually, Eloise is the one doing the choosing, as Joan would much prefer to stay in her comfortable flat — where she and her late husband had raised Eloise and her younger brother, Robert — surrounded by much-loved objects, some of them dating back to her childhood in South Africa.

Joan is, as they say, slipping. Compared with the vicissitudes of daily life, complicated by a growing number of physical irritants and limitations, she much prefers the rich fantasy life she conjures up by grasping the golden piano pedals (Joan was a gifted amateur pianist) that only she can see. Once they appear, Joan is able to use them to transport herself from the distasteful scenery of her quotidian reality to lush landscapes and lovely rooms, and bring her a form of happiness that is, at least to her, quite real.

As the reader is informed early in the first chapter: “Quite unbeknownst to Eloise, Joan inhabited a rich inner world which she disguised from her daughter, and from everyone else, with a feeling that had begun as embarrassment but was now rather closer to the delight with which certain children hoard a secret. The piano pedals were a portal to adventure — but she should not, she knew, begin a game [while sitting with Eloise in the office of the Nursing Manager]; she was sure to be disturbed in the middle, which was tedious.”

Joan’s dilemma — how this intelligent, cultured, and independent-minded 80-year-old will fare in the confines of a mind-numbing, if physically comfortable, institution whose residents are routinely referred to, in their own presence, as “old dears,” is only half the story. The other half belongs to Eloise, Joan’s formidably intelligent and extremely self-confident daughter, and hers is quite a story, too.

Thanks to Eloise, Derby Capital, the firm for which she works, is dangerously over-invested in the stock of a company that is trying to develop osmium, one of several meanings of the title, “natural elements,” for profit. The power behind the company is its brilliant R&D scientist, Claude Pasquier, who has been trying to unleash osmium’s commercial uses for years. What complicates matters is that Claude Pasquier is Eloise’s former lover, and the man her mother dearly wishes she had married (Why do I feel as if I’m describing a soap opera?).

Carol Wheeler, the other analyst who works for Derby Capital, the brainchild of the mercurial Patrick Derby, is Eloise’s bete noire. Unlike Eloise, she is married, a mother, short, and no beauty. And she thinks Eloise is leading the firm down a very dangerous path that could cost all of them their livelihoods.

When she openly voices her fears, Eloise rises to the occasion masterfully and swats her down (think Meryl Streep in “Prada” or the late great Bea Arthur in anything).

Revealing that Claude recently told her a break through was imminent, Eloise counters by suggesting the firm invest even more millions in osmium. Swayed by her new information and her bold attitude, Patrick agrees, thereby raising the stakes for everyone concerned. Instead of $65 million, Derby Capital now has $130 million one-fourth of its entire holdings — in osmium. But what no one, including Eloise, knows at this point, Claude’s statement was more hopeful than factual.

That drama, however, is only half the “front story’ (as opposed to “back story,” that overused pseudo-insider term I hereby promise never to use again); the other half is Joan’s determined fight to lead an interesting life.

She agrees to move to The Albany, the posh “home” Eloise has found for her, but she doesn’t agree to like it. So, after just a short time, she learns how to pretend she has taken her daily “calming” medicine. But as lucid as she sounds most of the time, Joan is most likely suffering from dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, as the presence of the pedals indicates.

On a “field trip” to the local library, a slightly disoriented Joan hits the wrong button on the elevator and finds herself in a sub-basement, where she encounters Paul, a bright but unhappy 15-year-old who is as unsuited to being a teenager as Joan is to being an old dear. They get on famously, embarking on a research project together, and their growing friendship is beautifully told. To imagine such a relationship is one thing, but to write it as well as Richard Mason has done takes real talent.

It also takes real talent to create such a mixed bag of characters and paint them into so many different, but clear, pictures. In addition to Joan-Eloise (allow me a quirk: I can see a 20th-century Eloise naming her daughter Joan, but for a Joan to choose Eloise struck me as odd), there’s: Eloise-Claude and Eloise-Patrick and Carol; Joan-Paul; and Joan-several other residents and employees of the Albany, among others. Young/old, black/white, male/female — this author can make them all believable. Most impressive.

As the interwoven tales spin on, some readers may find they’d prefer fewer details. For as good as the author is at building both drama and some suspense, he resolves several of these dilemmas too easily, at least for me. Too often, intriguing build-ups are spoiled by stock scenes or the intrusion of a cliched character.

Interestingly, even though the author is only 31, Joan comes across as a more fully-realized character than her daughter. But, again, it’s a tribute to Mr. Mason’s skill as both a storyteller and a writer (not the same thing) that he has drawn so many different characters so well.

It’s also to his credit that he has so realistically described Eloise’s job. I (who wouldn’t know a hedge fund from a hedgehog) actually understood what was happening, or not, with osmium. It’s a sometime criticism of American fiction that our serious novelists rarely deal with how their characters make a living. In “Natural Elements,” the South African-born, Eton-educated Mason makes the world of work seem just another natural element.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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