Book impressions: NATURAL ELEMENTS by Richard Mason

Does anyone ever like the second book they read by an author better than the first one they read?

I can’t think of a single time that I’ve preferred the second read. With all my favorite authors the first book I read remains my favorite. Wally Lamb, Christopher Moore, Ian McEwan, Jon Clinch.

This is the case with series of books too. I prefered Tales of the City to More Tales of the City or Further Tales of the City. I enjoyed The Hunger Games much more than Mockingjay or Catching Fire.

That said, although I did enjoy Natural Elements quite a bit, it is the second book I have read by Richard Mason and I preferred History of a Pleasure Seeker.

Natural Elements
is the story of Joan and her daughter Eloise. As the novel begins, Eloise and Joan are looking for an elder care facility for Joan.

They select an expensive one and before the move the pair takes a trip to South Africa where Joan lived as a child.

I thought more of the book was going to focus on the actual trip but although there are several chapters about it, the ramifications of the trip drive the plot more than the actual trip itself. For, while in South Africa, Joan and Eloise learn much about their family history as well as the Anglo-Boer War.

Back in the UK, Eloise struggles to balance her highly stressful career, which seems to be falling apart, and provide care and support to her mother.

Joan enters the nursing home with a smile in order to ease Eloise’s burden, but is actually quite miserable.

In addition to this very real, relatable storyline and the fascinating history of the Anglo-Boer War, of which I knew nothing, is a fantastical element.

Joan, a pianist, is has visions of piano pedals which lead her on adventures and allow her to visit, even change, the past.

At first I disliked the magical segments. I cared about Joan, related to Eloise and didn’t need the hocus pocus.

But it becomes essential to the plot later in the book and at the end there is a feeling of everything coming together that would have been lacking without the piano pedals.

The word that comes to mind with both books I’ve read by Richard Mason is lush. Natural Elements is beautifully written. I wish I had highlighted some of the phrases because they are downright lyrical.

And the relationship between Eloise and Joan is painfully real. Both of them trying to do what is best for the other, unable to communicate that neither is happy. But there’s a deep love there too that you can sense even in their most awkward exchanges.

I did have a hard time becoming invested in the book. I liked it well enough at the start, but not enough to think about the characters when I was reading, which is a test I apply to all the novels I read.

But slowly I found myself being drawn in.

The character of Paul, a teenage boy Eloise meets on a field trip to the local library, is introduced about halfway through the book and for some reason that’s where I became one hundred percent on board.

Two last things about Natural Elements: If you’re thinking of putting a parent in a home, read this book first.

Joan sadness and loneliness, not to mention the indignities of group aerobics and recreation lounges, made me want to cry.

And the scene where Eloise remembers her first sexual encounter with a lost love in order to stay awake during a lecture on the Anglo-Boer War is one of the most sensual scenes I have ever read.

I’d recommend Natural Elements, but if it doesn’t grab you on page one be sure to give it one hundred and fifty pages or so before giving up. The characters grow on you.

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