Tuesday, July 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Natural Elements (Richard Mason)

I picked this book up at the Dollar Tree. I can't recall ever buying a book there; I somehow suspected they must be pretty awful books if they end up being sold at the Dollar Tree. I'm ready to stand-up and say, "Oops. I might have been wrong." I think this purchase was well worth the dollar I spent.

I found the story very engaging. The main characters are Eloise, a middle-aged hedge fund manager, and her mother, Joan, who at first meeting is in the early stages of dementia. I was very surprised that the book was written by a man. I thought that he did a commendable job of rendering the emotional inner-lives of these women.

The story has two main threads. In one, Eloise makes a terrible business move and is frantically evading the truth of it as long as she can. This thread is fairly suspenseful and also a bit anxiety provoking on Eloise's behalf. In the other thread, Joan is first gradually, and later rapidly, slipping away into a world of memories and hallucinations. The threads are tied together as Eloise is left with the task of seeing that Joan is cared for in her declining years.

Although Richard Eder of the New York Times found the dementia sequences to be heavy-handed, I actually found them to be deeply moving. I wonder how much time Mr. Elder has actually spent with people whose minds are slipping away as they age. It can be a deeply complex process for the whole family. I thought this author's rendering did a wonderful job of giving Joan's character dignity in her clear moments as well as her hallucinatory ones. I found it touching and insightful that the author gave beauty and comfort to her visions.

Watching your parents grow old, trying to help them, but trying to live your own life...these are the themes of middle-age. It can be a very hard time, plagued with the guilt of never doing as much as you've thought you should. This book authentically addresses what it feels like for both mother and daughter as they dance this painful last dance together.

As a bonus, the story at one point takes you on a trip to South Africa and recalls the Boer Wars and the British concentration camps. Having known not a darn thing about this subject, it really was a fascinating passage.

Somehow, I think women may relate more to this book, but perhaps that is simply sexist. It was definitely two-thumbs up for me.

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