Edward St. Aubyn's thin novel (235 pages) makes up in acidity for what it lacks in length. It's all about Patrick Melrose, an attorney in his early forties; his wife Mary; and their two precocious sons Robert and Thomas. The clever title has to do literally with Mary's actually breast-feeding both her sons but it also refers to Patrick's often strained relationship with his unraveling aged mother who gives away the family home in the South of France to a New Age guru Seamus Dourke. The author throws in some adultery, thoughts of assisted suicide, the plight of the institutionalized old people and dysfunctional families in general. The action takes place in four Augusts from 2000 to 2003.
What is so exciting about this little novel is its very dry wit, seen most often in the character of Patrick. He calls his wife Mary and himself trainee parents. He opines that newborn babies "can't sweat, can't walk, can't talk, can't read, can't drive, can't sign a check." They are unlike horses who can stand a few hours after they are born. "'If horses went in for banking, they'd have a credit line by the end of the week.'" And sometimes a woman is just a woman "before you light her up."
The author reserves his most biting satire, however, for these United States. Having lost the ancestral home in the South of France, the Melrose family travels to America. While their plane is still on the ground at Heathrow, they spot a woman "sagging at the knees under her own weight." Like many Americans, they are so fat that they have "decided to become their own air-bag systems in a dangerous world." Patrick says he will call himself an "'international tourist on the grounds that that was how President Bush pronounced 'international terrorist.'" Finally there is much ado about the awfulness of American cuisine. The Melroses discover that french fries are not called "freedom fries" on a menu. Patrick decides that is is probably easier to write "God Bless Our Troops" than to reprint the menus. At the Better Latte Than Never coffee shop the waiter tells Patrick to "have a great one!" He sees that as as "hyperinflation" of "have a nice day." Patrick then goes on a tear, suggesting "Have a blissful one." "'You all make sure you have an all-body orgasm,' he whispered in a Southern accent, 'and make it last.' Because you deserve it. . . In the end, there was only so much you could expect from a cup of coffee and an uneatable muffin." Goodness knows that American road food is an easy target for satire. We all can tell horror stories of inedible U. S. restaurant offerings. One has to wonder, however, if this writer has ever tasted victuals in his own country. The only decent food I ever ate in England was in an Indian restaurant.
on July 17, 2007
It is odd perhaps that I would describe this short novel as a "slog," but there it is. While reading it, I spent a lot of time complaining to family and friends about the hateful, annoying novel I was reading. It started out particularly bad. The first section is written from the perspective of the family's five year old. I have to say, I really don't think this guy can write kids, or maybe he was trying to imagine what it would be like to describe the thoughts of a child in very adult language - I dunno. All I can say is it was excessively annoying.
Things get a little better when the perspectives of the adults take over, particularly the pathetic and eternally unsatisfied father and husband, Patrick. Now, I will be honest. What really got to me about this novel is its unrelenting cynicism. I know that other reviewers describe this as 'acerbic wit,' but for me it was just too much. Each and every character is loathesome. Each and every aspect of their lives is a bore and a chore. Now I am a single woman, so I guess I might have to admit that reading about the discontents of married people brings some amount of satisfaction. And in fact, Patrick could be quite amusing in his rants and raves (there were probably not enough of these). Also, I should add that NO ONE dislikes excessive earnestness more than me, but this novel, as I said, was unrelenting. And do I really need to hear multiple descriptions of how disgusting fat people are? I mean, that just comes off as snobbish and unkind, not really witty. And who can't find something good to eat in New York??
As many times as I was tempted to put down this book forever, I didn't - mainly because I have a compulsion that does not allow me to stop reading a book early. But despite this, the book did win me over in a certain way, and its author is a skilled writer, even if he sees no goodness in life, love, family, or any of New York's myriad restaurants. My advice to you? If I were being honest I would say - life is short, go read the Iliad or something. But if you dislike your spouse and regret having children and really hate your mother, you might enjoy it!
My admiration for Edward St. Aubyn grows with each installment of the Patrick Melrose novels. Earlier books depicted our eponymous anti-hero at ages 5, 20 and 30. Now 40, married, and with boys of his own, Patrick is clean but barely sober. Embittered by the mother who failed to protect him as a child and who now dithers away his legacy to a New Age Spiritual Foundation, Patrick is seething inside and out. As always the profound and mundane are laid side by side. There is a wonderful send up all things 'New Age' while the author simultaneously explores a look at motherhood--covering Medeas to Madonnas and all the permutations in-between.
In the first three novellas time and events were compressed into just one or merely a few days. Mother's Milk is more expansive, spread out over three consecutive summer holidays. Patrick, back from the brink is now lurching toward it again. It would be crude--and St. Aubyn is many things but never crude--to blame this soley upon his mother. There are a multitude of factors. Among them becoming a parent or nurturer (to use current parlance) when one hasn't the vaguest idea what nurturance entails--the hows and wherefores if you like. Poor Patrick has cast himself in a role he is in no way qualified to perform. It is this realization I find so appealing about St. Aubyn's books. We're all victims of somebody else's mistreatment and of our own blithe ineptitude. A ghastly combination.
If you have any New Age sensibilities (healing crystals, reincarnation, animism, et al), DON'T bother reading Mother's Milk. The author mocks you ferociously and very, very convincingly. The con-artist shaman Shamus (shame-us for believing this nutter) is truly inspired. So too is the characterization of Patrick's two mostly lovely sons. Perhaps because St. Aubyn was a child for so very long himself, he has this special ability to portray children so very convincingly. Robert is precocious and endearing but at age 7 already showing signs of being impacted by his father's rage. The wear and tear of living with broken individuals. Like second-hand smoke it's toxic and life threatening. Enfant terrible Thomas, beautiful and determined is damaging to his parents' relationship in ways even they don't appreciate.
Hovering throughout the story like a ghost is Eleanor--victim and victimizer. A woman at whose knee one learns to nurture grudges, and that's about all. Some Hope made me rather nervous. I thought Patrick was going to totter unabashedly into respectability and forgiveness. I should have know, if not better, that St. Aubyn is far too good a writer for such banality. Herein, the mother who gave so little asks a conflicted son to assist her commit suicide. A Greco-Freudian jamboree. Mother's Milk is among the best St. Aubyn's written. Can't wait to immerse myself in At Last. A brilliant series.
on June 16, 2007
The British love writing about dysfunctional families - there are dozens of good literary novels published each year about them - and if not for the fact that Edward St. Aubyn's book was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, it wouldn't have stood out as an obvious pick The secret torments of the Melroses aren't particularly exceptional or interesting. Fact is, they're all a little messed up in the head because they had dads or mums who didn't do the right thing by them when they were little. By implication, their own kids will some day grow up similarly afflicted. The problem with reading books like these is that with somebody - a parent or better still, society at large- to blame, we are encouraged not to take responsibility for our own actions. And so it goes on.
Be that as it may, "Mother's Milk" is indeed a very well written book. We dwell in the heads of each character merry-go-round style and let their interior monologue reveal their inner most feelings and frustrations to us. Of the lot, I found Mary's voice the most sympathetic and truest. A woman fighting a losing battle against the demands of motherhood is universal and a phenomenon most people can identify with. However, Patrick's spiraling resentment at losing his place in Mary's bed to his kids, his mother Eleanor's bizarre determination to disinherit him and leave her property to some New Age cause, his descent into self-pity and response by mooning about, getting drunk on the beach and making out with his friend Julia, etc only seems like childish petulance and grows increasingly tiresome. I also had problems with the voices of the two boys, Robert and Thomas - they're far too old for their ages and therefore lack credibility. Kettle, Mary's high society mother may seem like an obvious caricature but she's believable and explains Mary's obsession with becoming everything she's not. Even poor Eleanor's crankiness may be explained by her own past. The best part of the book for me was Chapter 4 - about the family's never again holiday with Josh Packer and his posh family - the antics of these nouveau riche are a scream !
If you're into books of this genre, you will enjoy "Mother's Milk". If not, there's nothing too special here that should make this a must-read. If only the Man Booker Prize nominating committee would be more daring in its choice of new titles for the award. I haven't read it yet but fellow nominee M J Hyland's "Carry Me Down" promises to be another one from this same genre.
on October 10, 2015
Taken by itself Mother's Milk is a decent if not overwhelmingly good novel about 40 year old Patrick Melrose's trials and tribulations in dealing with a dying mother, who has always failed him and will continue to fail him, and at the same time failing himself to come to terms with his wife Mary's absorption in the nurturing of their two all too precocious sons, Robert and the five years younger Thomas. Patrick is exasperated by his thoroughly egotistical and self absorbed mother and stymied by the selfless and sexless Mary. There is and has never been any mother's milk to be had from Eleanor as she foolishly gives away the family's French country estate to an Irish con man, the aptly named Seamus Darke. If only characters in novels paid attention to the names of their fellow characters! Meanwhile Mary lavishes her mother's milk, her love, on the two boys. The cupboard is bare for poor (self pitying) Patrick. As we watch the house slip away over four summers and the marriage grow increasingly fragile, Patrick takes to drink and an affair with the all too willing Julia. Why Mary welcomed a former flame of Patrick's to the summer retreat is a question and strains credulity. I don't know of a woman worth her salt who would take such a chance, and Mary is not stupid either.
Some will find the fourth year's summer jaunt to the USA jarring, but I think it serves to emphasize that the family has lost its spiritual home and rudder.
That they regain it at the end when Patrick dries out, the affair gives out, and he finally comes to terms with his loving to some extent his pitiful mother, even though she has nothing to give him, physically or spiritually, springs in part from their return home, to London and England. Back to their roots and their rooted existence as a family.
St. Aubyn had been pointing to this increasingly as the Melrose novels play out, and the satisfying way he humanizes Patrick as he grows beyond his self pity and his own self absorption gives added depth to the novel and to the entire series. [I am anxious to see how this pans out in the fifth volume.]
One of the most extraordinary things about the novel is the opening passage, told from the point of view of five year old Robert, and just being born Thomas as he is being born, while Robert watches. Who knows if St. Aubyn gets it right, but it has the ring of authenticity to me, and colors the entire novel and the entire series.
Oxford educated St. Aubyn must know his Wordsworth, as the opening section screams his name. Apparently Wordsworth once rented a house from a St. Aubyn. Hmmm. To use the words of Wordsworth from his magnificent Ode on Intimations of Immortality, "the glory and the dream" of early childhood and their inevitable loss are the driving force of these novels, and our interest comes from watching Melrose ("lovely is the rose") come to terms with losing all that and learning to accept life on this wretched earth.
St. Aubyn is a good writer. I love watching his development. On to Volume Five.
on August 25, 2014
A book largely in dialogues, it is bitingly human. It meanders along before it suddenly gallops to high grounds as one nears end. A very insightful work on family relationships and the everyday unspoken violence of it, as the author puts it.
Some of the phrases bewitch you with its novelty and lingering contemplation.
Encourages you to read more of the author though to compare him with Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde, as some important West's publications have done, is a little far-fetched.
The author doesn't have the expanse of a few of the real great literary talents who have enriched generations.
But he would do for the moment.
on November 7, 2014
This is the fourth of the five Patrick Melrose novels. I thought Never Mind (the first) was very good; I disliked Bad News (the second) although I must admit that it's very well written. Some Hope (the third) gave me just that and I decided to go on reading. But Mother's Milk, despite being so well reviewed and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was a disappointment. Instead of heroin (Bad News), I read a book about alcohol and, once again, I felt that I was reading a very well written awful book. I am aware that my problems with both Bad News and Mother's Milk have to do with me, not Edward St. Aubyn. I worked for years with drug addicts and alcoholics and I must admit, I often thought "how many more times in my life will I hear the same story?". In retrospect, I'm glad I did read the novel because At Last (the fifth) is really worthwhile.
In his impressive novel SOME HOPE, St. Aubyn's shows a young Patrick Melrose trying to cope with the actions and legacy of his repellent and snobbish father. In MOTHER'S MILK, the sequel, St. Aubyn shows Patrick, now in his forties, trying to cope with two mothers--Eleanor, his own mother, who is lingering pathetically in a nursing home, and Mary, his wife and the mother of his two young sons.
St. Aubyn has crafted these very different mothers so that they have equivalent effects on Patrick. Here, the young and middlle-aged Eleanor filled her life with altruistic pursuits, ignoring her son. In contrast, Mary's altruistic and all-consuming activity is motherhood, which once again leads to the abandonment of Patrick.
In examining Patrick and these two mothers, St. Aubyn shows considerable skills as a stylist and novelist. The skills show to their best when a character is in contemplative mode--say, the frustrated and lonely Patrick drinking at the beach or Mary with a few precious moments to herself as her demanding younger son naps. This is what I mean:
"She sometimes felt she was about to forget her own existence completely. She had to cry to reclaim herself. People who didn't understand thought that her tears were the product of a long suppressed and mundane catastrophe, her terminal exhaustion, her huge overdraft or her unfaithful husband, but they were in fact a crash course in the necessary egotism of someone who needed to get a self back in order to sacrifice it once again."
At the same time, the ability to make such observations causes occasional lapses. These are most apparent in numerous conversations, unreal in their articulateness, or in the renderings of children and their profound awareness. In both cases, these read as if St. Aubyn just couldn't pass up making a brilliant or exquisite remark. These are lapses in discipline, not control, and turn St. Aubyn's articulateness against the quality of his work.
Regardless, there is much pleasure to be found in this extremely well written novel.
on July 16, 2014
I'm about half way through the book at present. Edward St. Aubyn's writing has interesting elements, some of which are unique, but they haven't been marshaled to organize the story into a narrative that grips me in any way. A.R.
on October 9, 2006
One feels St. Aubyn could dive into a sewer, rummage around in the muck and emerge in a freshly pressed dinner suit with a boutonniere in bloom, smelling of cedar and roses and smiling like a shark. He creates believable characters from a once-priviliged family-in-decline and depicts the world-weary grittiness of the protagonist in crisp, elegant language with a style that is direct and light as a feather. Superbly crafted in the manner of the stories in his earlier book, "Some Hope."