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An Atlantic Magazine Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
?The Melrose Novels are a masterwork for the twenty-first century, written by one of the great prose stylists in England.? ?Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones
For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward ...
An Atlantic Magazine Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
“The Melrose Novels are a masterwork for the twenty-first century, written by one of the great prose stylists in England.” —Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones
For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.
By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind, the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.
Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy.
“Like Waugh, St. Aubyn writes with exquisite control and a brilliant comic touch…Patrick often seems like a Philip Roth hero transplanted into a world of English privilege…The Patrick Melrose Series forms an exhaustive study of cruelty: its varieties, its motivations, its consequences, its moral implications…At Last is an intelligent and surprising novel, a fitting conclusion to the one of the best fictional cycles in contemporary fiction.”—The Boston Globe
"Implausibly brilliant speech…The striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire and, on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest of contemporary novels …This prose, whose repressed English control is admired by everyone from Alan Hollinghurst to Will Self, is drawn inexorably back to a fearful instability, to the nakedness of infancy.”—James Wood, The New Yorker
"Gorgeous, golden prose…St. Aubyn is utterly fearless when faced with the task of unpacking and anatomizing the inner lives of characters. No emotion is so subtle and fleeting he can’t convey it, or so terrifying or shameful that he can’t face it.”—Lev Grossman, Time
"Parental death, heroin, childhood rape, emotional frigidity, suicide, alcoholism…nothing about the plots can prepare you for the rich, acerbic comedy of St. Aubyn’s world---or more surprising---its philosophical density."—Zadie Smith, Harper’s Magazine
"I read the five Patrick Melrose novels in five days. When I finished, I read them again."—Ann Patchett, The Guardian
"Extraordinary…acidic humor, stiletto-sharp."—Francine Prose
"Intoxicatingly witty."—The New York Review of Books
"Why did it take me so long to fall in love with the brilliant novels of Edward St. Aubyn?"—Brett Easton Ellis
"The most brilliant English novelist of his generation."—Alan Hollinghurst
"Our purest living prose stylist."—The Guardian (London)
"A smoldering portrait of a class largely banished from fiction."—James Lasdun
"Exquisitely harrowing entertainment."—Sam Lipsyte
"A spectacularly toxic confection."—The Village Voice
"Dialogue as amusing as Waugh’s and narrative even more deft than Graham Greene’s."—Edmund White
"A staggeringly good prose stylist."—The Times (London)
"One of the preeminent writers of his generation."—Will Self
The first thing you will want to know about At Last, the final volume in Edward St. Aubyn's five-novel cycle starring Patrick Melrose, is that, yes, you really do have to read the preceding four if you want to appreciate it fully. The second is that if reading about wealthy, conceited, selfish, dissipated, cruel, monstrously awful people is not for you, then, alas, neither are these novels. The third is that the books are brilliant. They are also highly idiosyncratic: Each installment is both a comedy of manners and a wrenching psychological investigation; each oscillates between satire and tragedy, and all are written with flash and brio, ornamented by inspired simile, and spangled with mordant, Wildean wit.
The first four novels are collected in this volume, beginning with Never Mind, a title of apt and dismal pathos. Here we meet Patrick Melrose, five years old and living in a château in Provence with his parents. His alcoholic, drug-befuddled mother, Eleanor, is an American heiress to some part of a dry- cleaning fortune, and it was that attribute that had captivated Patrick's sadistic English father, David. Trained as a doctor, he abandoned his practice upon marriage — though, we are told, "there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded."
The novel takes place over one terrible day and night, during which — and I must reveal this, as it is pivotal to the entire series — Patrick is raped by his father. While it is happening, the boy manages to disassociate himself from the event, seeing himself perched above the scene, mentally escaping his body. This split — between being there and not being there, between immediacy of experience and fending it off — bedevils Patrick from then on in every area of existence. That breach and his efforts to repair or at least bridge it, through drugs, alcohol, sex, and tormented self-examination, make up the cycle's shattering theme.
As for Patrick's mother, Eleanor: she is unmindful of everything but pills and booze, charitable causes, and the sure prospect that her husband will humiliate her, publicly if possible, at every opportunity. Absent from home the morning Patrick was attacked and oblivious to it, she later pauses, while writing a check to the Save the Children Fund, to consider Patrick's subdued demeanor, marveling "at how well her son had turned out. Perhaps people were just born one way or another and the main thing was not to interfere too much." Patrick's fear and confusion, Eleanor's obtuseness and self- involvement, and David's viciousness and "nimbus of insanity" provide the atmosphere amid which a dinner party is staged. The guests, characters we will meet again in following volumes, introduce us to the first principle of the decadent British upper caste: Nothing is so insufferable as a bore.
In this view, or, rather, under this obsession, a bore is a person who is genuinely tedious — and there are some terrifically funny representatives of that species in these novels — but a bore is also a person who cares about things. The surest defense against being branded a bore is to avoid the appearance of sincerity or compassion and to display a certain outrageousness. As David contemplates his violation of his son at this novel's conclusion, he reflects, "He must try not to do it again, that really would be tempting fate. David could not help smiling at his own audacity."
Bad News, the second novel, is not exactly a breath of fresh air. Patrick is now twenty-two and a heroin addict (with a sideline in Quaaludes, amphetamines, cocaine, and alcohol). He is in New York, having received news that his father has died there. Eleanor, now divorced from her tormenter and even more devoted to charitable works, is not on the scene. Patrick has to deal with the body's cremation and, more pressingly, with replenishing his drug supply. He is a mess: needle-scarred and bruised, his psyche a tangle of anxiety, hatred, and self- loathing. The pain is excruciating, the comedy ghoulish: Storming down the street carrying his father's ashes, he realizes that "it was the first time he had been alone with his father for more than ten minutes without being buggered, hit, or insulted."
Some Hope brings us Patrick at thirty, his past lying "before him like a corpse waiting to be embalmed." He lives in London, free of drugs and drink but more than ever engaged in an interior battle with the demons of the past: with his father, and, to an extent, with his mother, who, for all her ceaseless do- gooding, failed to protect her own son. The novel was meant to complete an intended trilogy, and it does end with Patrick finding a certain amount of peace — and some hope. Aside from that, it is enormously funny, the story organized around an elaborate, snob-infested country house party, a scene of social striving and mortification — the guests, among them Princess Margaret, are described with glorious malice.
With Mother's Milk, Patrick Melrose breaks free of the trilogy and emerges as a married man with two children, though — need it be said? — he is back in a state of "agitated despair." He is drinking again, can't sleep, and has a slight problem with Tamazepam, "namely that it wasn't strong enough. The side effects, the memory loss, the dehydration, the hangover, the menace of nightmarish withdrawals, all that worked beautifully. It was just the sleep that was missing." His troubles are further compounded by the fear that he will pass on his dark and riven consciousness to his children, just as his parents passed on their own sickness of soul. Meanwhile, Eleanor, who, we learn, may not have been entirely ignorant of Patrick's father's abuse, is in the process of disinheriting her son. She is handing over her estate in Provence to a New Age charlatan, a smarmy back rubber and would-be shaman who has set up a "Transpersonal Foundation" on the premises.
Profiting from the three-book foundation upon which it is built, Mother's Milk is a triumph, once again both gruesome and funny. There are wonderful comic set pieces, including a dreadful family vacation in New York City. But the grim work of psychological excavation also continues, this time with Eleanor as its chief object, as Patrick considers the machinations by which the weak exercise their grotesque tyranny. But something new has entered the picture: the children, two little boys, bringing with them an element of sweetness and genuine love.
And so we come to At Last: Patrick is forty-five, and his mother has died: With both parents gone, he feels that he has "been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness." But even as he pats his mother's coffin "as an owner might pat a winning race horse," we see that things are not splendid. He has given up drink but is also separated from his wife and children — and he is also still mystified and tormented by the chaos of his psyche.
How, I sense you wondering, can this still be interesting? It really is: not only because St. Aubyn is so entertaining a writer but because of the increasing philosophical depth he brings to the story. As Patrick delves deeper and deeper into the mystery of memory and identity, we wonder with him if they are, in fact, the same thing. And if so, the urge to escape is, in his case at least, irresistible — if not through drugs and drink, then through irony: "Forget heroin," he tells a former mistress, "Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning."
And yet Patrick's unwinding story never really loses this double nature, its devotion to pain and the comedy that only partly holds it at bay. St. Aubyn's own experiences inform these novels, and his unhappy circumstance no doubt endows Patrick's with its sense of urgency and anguished intensity. But whatever the author's actual state of mind has been or is now, its expression in art is a complete success.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Power
AT HALF-PAST SEVEN IN the morning, carrying the laundry she had ironed the night before, Yvette came down the drive on her way to the house. Her sandal made a faint slapping sound as she clenched her toes to prevent it from falling off, and its broken strap made her walk unsteadily over the stony, rutted ground. Over the wall, below the line of cypresses that ran along the edge of the drive, she saw the doctor standing in the garden.
In his blue dressing gown, and already wearing dark glasses although it was still too early for the September sun to have risen above the limestone mountain, he directed a heavy stream of water from the hose he held in his left hand onto the column of ants moving busily through the gravel at his feet. His technique was well established: he would let the survivors struggle over the wet stones, and regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them again. With his free hand he removed a cigar from his mouth, its smoke drifting up through the brown and grey curls that covered the jutting bones of his forehead. He then narrowed the jet of water with his thumb to batter more effectively an ant on whose death he was wholly bent.
Yvette had only to pass the fig tree and she could slip into the house without Dr Melrose knowing she had arrived. His habit, though, was to call her without looking up from the ground just when she thought she was screened by the tree. Yesterday he had talked to her for long enough to exhaust her arms, but not for so long that she might drop the linen. He gauged such things very precisely. He had started by asking her opinion of the mistral, with exaggerated respect for her native knowledge of Provence. By the time he was kind enough to show an interest in her son’s job at the shipyard, the pain had spread to her shoulders and started to make sharp forays into her neck. She had been determined to defy him, even when he asked about her husband’s back pains and whether they might prevent him from driving the tractor during the harvest. Today he did not call out with the ‘Bonjour, chère Yvette’ which inaugurated these solicitous morning chats, and she stooped under the low branches of the fig tree to enter the house.
The chateau, as Yvette called what the Melroses called an old farmhouse, was built on a slope so that the drive was level with the upper floor of the house. A wide flight of steps led down one side of the house to a terrace in front of the drawing room.
Another flight skirted the other side of the house down to a small chapel which was used to hide the dustbins. In winter, water gurgled down the slope through a series of pools, but the gutter which ran beside the fig tree was silent by this time of year, and clogged with squashed and broken figs that stained the ground where they had fallen.
Yvette walked into the high dark room and put down the laundry. She switched on the light and began to divide the towels from the sheets and the sheets from the tablecloths. There were ten tall cupboards piled high with neatly folded linen, none of it now used. Yvette sometimes opened these cupboards to admire this protected collection. Some of the tablecloths had laurel branches and bunches of grapes woven into them in a way that only showed when they were held at certain angles. She would run her finger over the monograms embroidered on the smooth white sheets, and over the coronets encircling the letter ‘V’ in the corner of the napkins. Her favourite was the unicorn that stood over a ribbon of foreign words on some of the oldest sheets but these too were never used, and Mrs Melrose insisted that Yvette recycle the same poor pile of plain linen from the smaller cupboard by the door.
* * *
Eleanor Melrose stormed her way up the shallow steps from the kitchen to the drive. Had she walked more slowly, she might have tottered, stopped, and sat down in despair on the low wall that ran along the side of the steps. She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature. The mornings had grown cooler since the beginning of September and the air already smelt of autumn, but this hardly mattered to Eleanor who was sweating through the thick layers of powder on her forehead. With each step she pushed her hands against her knees to help her forward, staring down through huge dark glasses at the white canvas shoes on her pale feet, her dark pink raw-silk trousers like hot peppers clinging to her legs.
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.
The drive rose sharply to the left of the steps to a circle of flat ground where her maroon Buick was parked under an umbrella pine. It looked preposterous, stretched out on its white-walled tyres against the terraced vines and olive groves behind it, but to Eleanor her car was like a consulate in a strange city, and she moved towards it with the urgency of a robbed tourist.
Globules of translucent resin were stuck to the Buick’s bonnet. One splash of resin with a dead pine needle inside it was glued to the base of the windscreen. She tried to pick it off, but only smeared the windscreen more and made the tips of her fingers sticky. She wanted to get into the car very much, but she went on scratching compulsively at the resin, blackening her fingernails. The reason that Eleanor liked her Buick so much was that David never drove it, or even sat in it. She owned the house and the land, she paid for the servants and the drink, but only this car was really in her possession.
When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did. He was also descended from Charles II through a prostitute. ‘I’d keep quiet about that, if I were you,’ she had joked when he first told her. Instead of smiling, he had turned his profile towards her in a way she had grown to loathe, thrusting out his underlip and looking as if he were exercising great tolerance by not saying something crushing.
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly. The first time he had taken an interest in him was when David left Eton, and his father asked him what he wanted to do. David stammered, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ not daring to admit that he wanted to compose music. It had not escaped the General’s attention that his son fooled about on the piano, and he rightly judged that a career in the army would put a curb on this effeminate impulse. ‘Better join the army,’ he said, offering his son a cigar with awkward camaraderie.
And yet, to Eleanor, David had seemed so different from the tribe of minor English snobs and distant cousins who hung around, ready for an emergency, or for a weekend, full of memories that were not even their own, memories of the way their grandfathers had lived, which was not in fact how their grandfathers had lived. When she had met David, she thought that he was the first person who really understood her. Now he was the last person she would go to for understanding. It was hard to explain this change and she tried to resist the temptation of thinking that he had been waiting all along for her money to subsidize his fantasies of how he deserved to live. Perhaps, on the contrary, it was her money that had cheapened him. He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.
The thought of running into David struck Eleanor again. She tore herself away from the pine resin on the windscreen, clambered into the car and drove the unwieldy Buick past the steps and along the dusty drive, only stopping when she was halfway down the hill. She was on her way over to Victor Eisen’s so she could make an early start for the airport with Anne, but first she had to straighten herself out. Folded in a cushion under the driver’s seat was a half-bottle of Bisquit brandy. In her bag she had the yellow pills for keeping her alert and the white ones for taking away the dread and panic that alertness brought with it. With the long drive ahead of her she took four instead of two of the yellow pills and then, worrying that the double dose might make her jumpy, she took two of the white ones, and drank about half the bottle of brandy to help the pills down. At first she shuddered violently, and then before it even reached her bloodstream, she felt the sharp click of alcohol, filling her with gratitude and warmth.
She subsided into the seat on which she had only been perched, recognizing herself in the mirror for the first time that day. She settled into her body, like a sleepwalker who climbs back into bed after a dangerous expedition. Silent through the sealed windows, she saw black and white magpies burst from the vines, and the needles of the pine trees standing out sharply against the pale sky, swept clean by two days of strong wind. She started the engine again and drove off, steering vaguely along the steep and narrow lanes.
David Melrose, tired of drowning ants, abandoned watering the garden. As soon as the sport lost a narrow focus, it filled him with despair. There was always another nest, another terrace of nests. He pronounced ants ‘aunts’, and it added zest to his murderous pursuits if he bore in mind his mother’s seven haughty sisters, high-minded and selfish women to whom he had displayed his talent on the piano when he was a child.
David dropped the hose on the gravel path, thinking how useless to him Eleanor had become. She had been rigid with terror for too long. It was like trying to palpate a patient’s swollen liver when one had already proved that it hurt. She could only be persuaded to relax so often.
He remembered an evening twelve years before, when he had asked her to dinner at his flat. How trusting she was in those days! They had already slept together, but Eleanor still treated him shyly. She wore a rather shapeless white dress with large black polka dots. She was twenty-eight but seemed younger because of the simple cut of her lank blonde hair. He found her pretty in a bewildered, washed-out way, but it was her restlessness that aroused him, the quiet exasperation of a woman who longs to throw herself into something significant, but cannot find what it is.
He had cooked a Moroccan dish of pigeon stuffed with almonds. He served it to her on a bed of saffron rice and then drew back the plate. ‘Will you do something for me?’ he asked.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘What?’
He put the plate on the floor behind her chair and said, ‘Would you eat your food without using a knife and fork, or your hands, just eat it off the plate?’
‘Like a dog, you mean?’ she asked.
‘Like a girl pretending to be a dog.’
‘Because I want you to.’
He enjoyed the risk he was taking. She might have said no and left. If she stayed and did what he wanted, he would capture her. The odd thing was that neither of them thought of laughing.
A submission, even an absurd one, was a real temptation to Eleanor. She would be sacrificing things she did not want to believe in – table manners, dignity, pride – for something she did want to believe in: the spirit of sacrifice. The emptiness of the gesture, the fact that it did not help anybody, made it seem more pure at the time. She knelt down on all fours on the threadbare Persian rug, her hands flattened either side of the plate. Her elbows jutted out as she lowered herself and picked up a piece of pigeon between her teeth. She felt the strain at the base of her spine.
She sat back, her hands resting on her knees, and chewed quietly. The pigeon tasted strange. She looked up a little and saw David’s shoes, one pointing towards her along the floor, the other dangling close to her in the air. She looked no higher than the knees of his crossed legs, but bowed down again, eating more eagerly this time, rooting about in the mound of rice to catch an almond with her lips and shaking her head gently to loosen some pigeon from the bone. When she looked up at him at last, one of her cheeks was glazed with gravy and some grains of the yellow rice were stuck to her mouth and nose. All the bewilderment was gone from her face.
For a few moments David had adored her for doing what he had asked. He extended his foot and ran the edge of his shoe gently along her cheek. He was completely captivated by the trust she showed him, but he did not know what to do with it, since it had already achieved its purpose, which was to demonstrate that he could elicit her submission.
The next day he told Nicholas Pratt what had happened. It was one of those days when he made his secretary say that he was busy, and sat drinking in his club, beyond the reach of fevered children and women who pretended their hangovers were migraines. He liked to drink under the blue and gold ceiling of the morning room, where there was always a ripple left by the passage of important men. Dull, dissolute, and obscure members felt buoyed up by this atmosphere of power, as little dinghies bob up and down on their moorings when a big yacht sails out of the harbour they have shared.
‘Why did you make her do it?’ asked Nicholas, hovering between mischief and aversion.
‘Her conversation is so limited, don’t you find?’ said David.
Nicholas did not respond. He felt that he was being forced to conspire, just as Eleanor had been forced to eat.
‘Did she make better conversation from the floor?’ he asked.
‘I’m not a magician,’ said David, ‘I couldn’t make her amusing, but I did at least keep her quiet. I was dreading having another talk about the agonies of being rich. I know so little about them, and she knows so little about anything else.’
Nicholas chuckled and David showed his teeth. Whatever one felt about David wasting his talents, thought Nicholas, he had never been any good at smiling.
David walked up the right side of the double staircase that led from the garden to the terrace. Although he was now sixty, his hair was still thick and a little wild. His face was astonishingly handsome. Its faultlessness was its only flaw; it was the blueprint of a face and had an uninhabited feeling to it, as if no trace of how its owner had lived could modify the perfection of the lines. People who knew David well watched for signs of decay, but his mask grew more noble each year. Behind his dark glasses, however rigidly he held his neck, his eyes flickered unobserved, assessing the weaknesses in people. Diagnosis had been his most intoxicating skill as a doctor and after exhibiting it he had often lost interest in his patients, unless something about their suffering intrigued him. Without his dark glasses, he wore an inattentive expression, until he spotted another person’s vulnerability. Then the look in his eyes hardened like a flexed muscle.
He paused at the top of the stairs. His cigar had gone out and he flung it over the wall into the vines below. Opposite him, the ivy that covered the south side of the house was already streaked with red. He admired the colour. It was a gesture of defiance towards decay, like a man spitting in the face of his torturer. He had seen Eleanor hurrying away early in her ridiculous car. He had even seen Yvette trying to steal into the house without drawing attention to herself. Who could blame them?
He knew that his unkindness to Eleanor was effective only if he alternated it with displays of concern and elaborate apologies for his destructive nature, but he had abandoned these variations because his disappointment in her was boundless. He knew that she could not help him unravel the knot of inarticulacy that he carried inside him. Instead, he could feel it tightening, like a promise of suffocation that shadowed every breath he took.
It was absurd; but all summer long he had been obsessed by the memory of a mute cripple he had seen in Athens airport. This man, trying to sell tiny bags of pistachio nuts by tossing printed advertisements into the laps of waiting passengers, had heaved himself forward, stamping the ground with uncontrollable feet, his head lolling and his eyes rolling upwards. Each time David had looked at the man’s mouth twisting silently, like a gasping fish on a river bank, he had felt a kind of vertigo.
David listened to the swishing sound his yellow slippers made as he walked up the last flight of steps to the door that led from the terrace into the drawing room. Yvette had not yet opened the curtains, which saved him the trouble of closing them again. He liked the drawing room to look dim and valuable. A dark red and heavily gilded chair that Eleanor’s American grandmother had prised from an old Venetian family on one of her acquisitive sweeps through Europe gleamed against the opposite wall of the room. He enjoyed the scandal connected with its acquisition and, knowing that it ought to be carefully preserved in a museum, he made a point of sitting on it as often as possible. Sometimes, when he was alone, he sat in the Doge’s chair, as it was always called, leaning forward on the edge of the seat, his right hand clasping one of the intricately carved arms, striking a pose he remembered from the Illustrated History of England he had been given at prep school. The picture portrayed Henry V’s superb anger when he was sent a present of tennis balls by the insolent King of France.
David was surrounded by the spoils of Eleanor’s matriarchal American family. Drawings by Guardi and Tiepolo, Piazetta and Novelli hung thickly over the walls. An eighteenth-century French screen, crowded with greyish-brown monkeys and pink roses, divided the long room in half. Partially hidden behind it, from where David stood, was a black Chinese cabinet, its top crowded with neat rows of bottles, and its inner shelves filled with their reinforcements. As he poured himself a drink, David thought about his dead father-in-law, Dudley Craig, a charming, drunken Scotsman who had been dismissed by Eleanor’s mother, Mary, when he became too expensive to keep.
After Dudley Craig, Mary had married Jean de Valençay, feeling that if she was going to keep a man, he might as well be a duke. Eleanor had been brought up in a string of houses where every object seemed to have been owned by a king or an emperor. The houses were wonderful, but guests left them with relief, conscious that they were not quite good enough, in the duchess’s eyes, for the chairs on which they had sat.
David walked towards the tall window at the end of the room. The only one with its curtain open, it gave a view onto the mountain opposite. He often stared at the bare outcrops of lacerated limestone. They looked to him like models of human brains dumped on the dark green mountainside, or at other times, like a single brain, bursting from dozens of incisions. He sat on the sofa beside the window and looked out, trying to work up a primitive sense of awe.
Copyright © 2012 by Edward St. Aubyn
1. Why does Eleanor submit to David in Never Mind? Does he submit to anything (other than the memory of his father)?
2. As five-year-old Patrick is being brutalized by his father in chapter seven, how does his imagination rescue him? What effect does this have on his perception of reality in the subsequent books?
3. In the closing passages of Never Mind, Eleanor watches Bridget clumsily try to escape for a tryst with Barry, “just going down the drive as if she were free” (page 129). If it weren’t for the lure of money and status, would all the primary characters be free?
4. What makes Edward St. Aubyn’s depiction of addiction in Bad News unique? How did you react as you watched Patrick juggle Quaaludes, speed, and heroin, culminating in the other world of the Key Club?
5. What various comforts do Anne, George, and Pierre offer Patrick after he comes face-to-face with his father’s “misplaced” corpse?
6. In Some Hope, Princess Margaret natters on about child abuse, atheism, the failure of socialism, the charms of Noël Coward, and the ways in which the ambassador’s sauce splatter is a sign of egregious disrespect for the crown. In this infamous party scene, is she the only one being spoofed?
7. Patrick tells Anne that his grandmother’s Great War diary (page 429) led him to believe that his father was sexually abused as a child. Did you agree with Patrick or with Anne as they debated the role of forgiveness?
8. What was it like to experience birth from wise Robert’s point of view in Mother’s Milk? How do Robert and Thomas complete St. Aubyn’s meditation on sons and mothers?
9. The quartet ends with Patrick in the role of parent as his mother confronts euthanasia (after signing over Saint-Nazaire to the Foundation). What did Eleanor teach him about women? How do these lessons play out with Julia and Mary?
10. St. Aubyn gives us recurring images of an Alsatian dog chasing Patrick (page 132 and 511) and describes David as “no more endearing than a chained Alsatian” (page 156). Who and what continue to hound Patrick long after his father’s death?
Posted May 10, 2012
I wonder what it might have been like to read these four novels over the space of some twenty years, as they were written, rather than in a couple of weeks -- essentially as one long novel? I shall never know, of course. This collection was published at the release of the final installment of the Patrick Melrose Story -- AT LAST.
NEVER MIND is the first book in this wildly ambitious, utterly successful series. It takes place over the course of a twenty-four hour period in which the Oh-so-veddy-uppercrust wee Patrick is five years old, and sexually abused by his narcissistic, savagely cruel father.
In MOTHER'S MILK, Patrick is 22, and (perhaps not surprisingly) a drug addict heading to NYC to retrieve his father's corpse. The bleakest and perhaps most interior of the novels, it covers a drug-fueled weekend in Manhattan, wherein our hero searches for drugs and behaves rather badly, but not as badly as you might expect, given his family life.
Eight years later, SOME HOPE finds Patrick attempting to recover from his addictions and confronting his horrific personal history.
In the last of the four book, MOTHER'S MILK, Patrick is married, although with only mild happiness, and the father of two boys, Robert, and the younger Thomas. In this work, Patrick's mother, who appeared in the first novel as an alarmingly subservient mess of neuroses, has turned into a New Age manipulator intent on betraying her son once again by turning over the family estate to an Irish-hippy con artist.
The weight of these novels likes not so much in the events themselves -- but in the internal journey of the characters, centering of course on Patrick. St. Aubyn has admitted that writing them has been a form of therapy and contains large elements of autobiography, although he did not admit the sexual abuse was based on personal experience until years after the first novel was published..
But let's be clear, this is not memoir. It is fictional art of the highest order. The voice is one of the most scathingly witty I've read in years. I couldn't help but think of Oscar Wilde. It is the humor which lifts the book out of the morass of derelict novels out there. Intelligence is burned into every page. No one is spared, not the British 'aristocracy' (whatever that means these days), not the narrator or any other character, not the Americans. . . everyone who appears in these novels is eviscerated, and yet I found them all, in spite of being pedophiles, drug addicts, narcissists and upper class twits -- utterly fascinating.
St. Aubyn is concerned with consciousness and he is a master at revealing it. (Jane Gardam does the same thing, with less squalor and with a gentler wit, but they echo each other in many ways. I can't think of a North American writer that does this so well.) I can't wait to read AT LAST, and will be very sorry, I'm sure, when it ends.
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Posted March 14, 2012
In this set of four brief novels (and a final fifth one, 'At Last,' just published), St. Aubyn's autobiographically-based fiction depicts the life of Patrick Melrose from toddlerhood to middle-age. In spare, elegant prose, he also skewers the vapidity and mores of the English upper class. The second novel, 'Bad News,' is the most harrowing of the books, describing in excruciating detail the overwhelming power of heroin addiction, which is Patrick's response to his parents' abuse and neglect. In spite of exploring these 'lower depths,' the tone and mood of the novels, especially the latter ones, achieve a kind of serenity and acceptance of living life on life's terms, and thus the quintet ends on a note of optimism and sense of redemption.
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Posted May 26, 2013
I especially enjoyed the reading experience of reading the second book. It was a really unique world away trip.
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Posted April 1, 2012
Posted June 12, 2012
There are five novels in the Patrick Melrose series, made up of the four in this volume and the final book, At Last. Edward St. Aubyn's writing is spare and full of meaning, which made my reading time fly by. Every character is described so well that I knew them on a level that I seldom do when reading fiction. While reading the first story, I was so enraged at what happend to young Patrick I would have thrown the book across the room had I not been reading it on my nook.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 27, 2012
Hard to put down, and the elegaic, though tough and unpleasant "Bad News", is a tour de force! And the blurb is true: every page has something that makes you laugh, even out loud from time to time.
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Posted March 10, 2012
This book is great - funny, witty, insightful, sardonic - hope he continues writing after the final installment is done.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2012
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