In his much celebrated debut novel, The Drowning People, Richard Mason ("An Oxonian literary sensation" --The New York Times Book Review) wrote with wisdom and mastery well beyond his twenty-one years--about love, betrayal, and revenge, and about the particular ritualized world of the English upper class.
Now in his dazzling new novel Mason writes about mothers and daughters; aging and death; memory and longing; history and narrative; and about the high-stakes, full-tilt embrace of life.
The setting is London. The time is the present.
Mother and daughter are choosing an assisted-living facility and have come to The Albany, a late-nineteenth-century Victorian mansion, the flagship property of the TranquilAge(tm) chain of nursing homes.
The mother, Joan--eighty years old, a gifted amateur pianist denied the pleasures of performance by arthritic hands--has recently been experiencing a rich inner world that she hides from her daughter, a world gained access through the (seemingly magic) pedals of her piano: a portal to adventure. She dreads the prospect of leaving her apartment, but her daughter has decided that she can no longer live on her own.
The daughter, Eloise--forty-eight, a hedge fund manager, two decades in commodities--long ago rejected the possibilities of motherhood and has lived enviably free of responsibility.
At her pressure-cooker job, Eloise has bought up $130 million (a quarter of the hedge fund's money) of osmium reserves--a transition metal--based on a casual remark by her former lover, a French metallurgist, a genius of sorts, with whom she lived and whom she almost married in Paris in the 1980s.
He's been working for years on the development of the compound, which will be tougher than diamonds for industrial use and is only months away from trials. If successful, it could more than double the value of the fund Eloise manages.
While mother and daughter are on the trip-of-a-lifetime to the South African capital of the old Orange Free State, the city of Joan's girlhood, Eloise gets a frantic phone call. The price of osmium is in free fall; the fund is off-loading. . .
Fighting panic with a coherent strategy, Eloise puts in motion a bold gamble that risks all--her future, the fund, her mother's well-being.
As the stories of mother and daughter intersect, each in a race against time--Joan struggling to live in the present (she cannot believe her days will end in an institution); her daughter racing at breakneck speed toward the precipice of disaster--the novel rushes to its stunning conclusion.
Mason's ambitious second novel (after Drowning People) takes a contemporary aging parent story and weaves in elements of a corporate thriller and a bit of historical fiction flecked with fantasy. Eloise McAllister is facing the problem of how best to care for her mother, Joan, an amateur pianist whose family's nasty experiences during the Boer Wars have begun to color her vivid dream life. While juggling hundreds of millions of dollars as a London hedge fund manager, Eloise settles Joan into a nursing home, but before she does, the two take a trip to South Africa to visit Joan's childhood home. While there, Eloise's risky (and large) investment in a new metal alloy tanks, and Joan's hallucinations-brought about via hallucinated piano pedals-fail to improve. These two story lines drive the narrative and eventually compel Eloise to commit a supreme act of filial compassion. An array of strange characters play pivotal roles, such as an eccentric 16-year-old, a lover who happens to be a scientific genius, and an evil nursing home worker. Though Mason tends to spell everything out, the South African passages are sublime and the mother-daughter relationship well done. (Mar.)
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March 16, 2009
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