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Mother's Milk ()


Edward St. Aubyn is widely hailed as one of, if not the, best contemporary British novelists. In a novel cycle that harkens back to Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, he has used semi-autobiographical fiction to chart the life of Patrick Melrose, son of the aristocracy, raped as a child by an abusive father, with either his mother's connivance or willful ignorance, turned heroin addict by his teen years and alcoholic as he raises a family of his own. Over the course of the novels he buries first the father and then the mother and achieves some sort of uneasy truce with the memory of both.

Rather than leap straight into such subject matter, I started with an early novel from outside the series, On the Edge. This one owes more to Evelyn Waugh, with whom St. Aubyn is often compared, in its resemblance to The Loved One. But where Waugh rendered Hollywood, the target here is Californian adherents of New Age nonsense at an Esalen-like retreat.

Everyone is, of course, ultra-sensitive and PC:
Adam rose to his feet, tears streaming down his cheeks. Everyone fell silent.

'The whales have AIDS,'he sobbed. He had only learned this from Dave half an hour before, speaking across the gap of Crystal's absence, but he had already appropriated it as his own tragedy. 'What are we doing to this beautiful planet?'
And if they are easy targets, the author displays a truly ingenious turn of phrase in skewering them:
Stepping into the tub behind Blue-Eyes was a woman whose blonde hair, tortured into the tightest curls, seemed to be a homage to Africa, and a whimsical gesture of regret at not being born black herself. Peter was shocked to find himself irritated by Crystal's friendliness towards the newcomers. Although these people had as much right to be in the communal tub, they were interrupting his conversation with her.

'I did a past lifetime thing,' said the African Queen. 'I didn't really know what to make of it, but it made a lot of sense. I'd been a slave at one point and suffered a lot.

Peter instantly hated her. She was paying huge hair dressing bills to create a cosmetic continuity with a former lifetime of abject suffering in the hope of justifying the overflow of her self-pity.
That last sentence is pure gold.

It all ends up spread pretty thin though and, whether to his credit or shame, Mr. St Aubyn lets his foot off the pedal, or off the characters' throats, ending with a series of orgiastic scenes that provide them some sort of meaning, maybe even meaning consistent with the guff he's been making fun of. I don't know; it's ultimately less savage than one would expect.

Meanwhile, the New Age phoniness returns in the 4th volume of the Melrose book, Mother's Milk. Here Patrick Melrose has just had his second son and both he and the precocious first must work thorough their jealousy at being displaced in the attentions/affections of the mother/wife. Son Robert reveals the depth of his anguish when he's asked what he wants to eat and, staring at his breast-feeding baby-brother responds: "I want what Thomas is having".

Patrick doesn't go quite that far, but he does know how close he is:
“Am I being childish?” asked Thomas, approaching his father. “No,” said Patrick. “You’re being a child. Only grown-ups can be childish, and my God, we take advantage of the fact.”
Beyond being denied access to his wife, Patrick must also deal with the declining health of the mother who failed to protect him when he was a child. Compounding his resentment, she has deeded the family chateau in France, where most of the novel is set, to a New Age huckster, virtually disinheriting her son and his young family.

Patrick can be appealing to the reader. Not only are we sympathetic regarding what he has overcome but he has devoted himself, as a result, to not damaging his children. And if he is sarcastic to the point of cruelty, he is so with the sharp humor and literacy of the author.

Nevertheless, he does drift into an extramarital affair, with a woman he does not love (not that genuine affection would make it okay), seemingly because he thinks that's what a man in his position is supposed to do:
He struggled so hard to get away from his roles as a father and a husband, only to miss them the moment he succeeded. There was no better antidote to his enormous sense of futility than the enormous sense of purpose which his children brought to the most obviously futile tasks, such as pouring buckets of sea water into holes in the sand. Before he managed to break away from his family, he liked to imagine that once he was alone he would become an open field of attention, or a solitary observer training his binoculars on some rare species of insight usually obscured by the mass of obligations that swayed before him like a swarm of twittering starlings. In reality solitude generated its own roles, not based on duty but on hunger. He became a cafe voyeur, drunk with desire, or a calculating machine compulsively assessing the inadequacy of his income.

Was there any activity which didn't freeze into a role? Could he listen without being a listener, think without being a thinker? [...] The margin of freedom he had gained with Julia was soon filled with the concrete of another role. She was his mistress, he was her married man. She would struggle to get him away, he would struggle to keep her in the mistress slot without tearing his family apart.
This seriously scared me. Patrick (St. Aubyn?) seems not to exist. He is nothing more than the series of roles he adopts. He is never present in the way the boys are with their buckets of sea water. And is the task to fill the holes, or is it to have fun doing so? If Patrick were able to embrace such immediacy and partake of life, couldn't he discard this whole notion of roles and feed his hunger with the ordinariness of daily life? His interiority is not just self-defeating but self-destroying, as the pointless but harmful affair amply demonstrates.

Eventually the scene shifts to America and we are invited to have fun at the expense of the fat happy Yankees. We are treated to one of those bizarre British rants about our wishing each other a nice day. The implication is always that we can't be serious about the sentiment, because the ranters would not be. Of course, Brits who spend enough time here, or who move here, always have to report back from the field that Americans truly are just that friendly and open. Maybe when you're stuck in the Patrick/Edward loop, where you think all that exists are roles, you simply can't process the idea that courtesy and caring can be more than poses to be struck when, and only when, the playwrite calls for them? At any rate, by novel's end my sympathy had been dissipated. Patrick got points for trying to be a good dad/husband, but promptly squandered them. His wife is entirely too passive and too bound to her youngest child. The older son is annoyingly written with the vocabulary and speech of an older man and memories of even his own birth. Patrick's mother can't even lure us with her ill health because of the way she's now treating the son she betrayed back when. Much of it is laugh out loud funny, but I was just as happy leaving the characters behind.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B-)


Websites:

See also:

Patrick St Aubyn (2 books reviewed)
British (Post War)
Patrick St Aubyn Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Edward St Aubyn
    -AUTHOR SITE: edwardstaubyn.com
    -BIO: Edward St Aubyn (British Council: literature)
    -ENTRY: St. Aubyn, Edward 1960- (Encyclopedia.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Edward St Aubyn (IMDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Mother's Milk (Pan Macmillan)
    -PROFILE: Inheritance: How Edward St. Aubyn made literature out of a poisoned legacy. (Ian Parker, May 26, 2014, The New Yorker)
In 1991, as Edward St. Aubyn was about to publish “Never Mind”—the first of five highly autobiographical novels, in which extremes of familial cruelty and social snobbery are described with a tart precision that is not quite free of cruelty and snobbery—he went for a walk with his mother in the English countryside and told her that his father had repeatedly raped him as a young boy. Her response “wasn’t totally satisfactory,” St. Aubyn said, several weeks ago. “She said, ‘Me, too’ ”—meaning that his father had raped her as well. “She was very, very keen to jump the queue and say how awful it was for her.”

    -PROFILE: Road to redemption: Although described as 'the purest living prose stylist', Edward St Aubyn was best known for his troubled past. A favourite for last year's Booker, he is now getting the recognition he deserves (Hadley Freeman, 13 Jan 2007, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Edward St Aubyn: 'Writing is horrible': Novelist Edward St Aubyn faced a stark choice: tell the shocking truth about his life – or kill himself. But will his readers let him write about anything else? (Stephen Moss, 8/17/11, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Edward St Aubyn: Stripping off and cavorting at New Age retreats, all in the name of research: Best known for the haunting, autobiographical Melrose novels, Edward St Aubyn has a lighter side (Tim Martin, 27 January 2008, The Independent)
    -PROFILE: Edward St Aubyn and the enigma of consciousness (Anthony Quinn, 26 Jan 2008, The Telegraph)
    -PROFILE: An Exclusive Interview with Edward St. Aubyn: "After all these years, I am so unconcerned with what was done to me. I've created room to be concerned with the person who did it." (Mary Kaye Schilling, May 6, 2015, Town & Country)
    -PROFILE: Edward St. Aubyn Steps Into the Spotlight: The English novelist's highly acclaimed novel, “At Last” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has just been published in the U.S. (Samantha Conti, February 15, 2012, WWD)
    -PROFILE: Edward St. Aubyn and the Depressive Third Person (Nicholas Dames, 11.13.2012, Public Books)
    -INTERVIEW: The interview: Edward St Aubyn (Helen Elliott, February 16, 2013, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -INTERVIEW: Edward St. Aubyn (Patrick McGrath & Maria Aitken, Fall 2003, BOMB)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: In Life And Fiction, Edward St. Aubyn Sheds The Weight Of His Past (Terry Gross, May 20, 2014, Fresh Air)
    -PROFILE: Author Edward St Aubyn on the set of his unfilmable book, Mother’s Milk: Too harrowing, too posh; they said Edward St Aubyn’s novels could not be filmed — until now. Ruth Lewy met him on set (Ruth Lewy, November 06 2012, Times uk)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Edward St. Aubyn: The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels (Michael Silverblatt, Sep. 27, 2018, KCRW: Bookworm)
    -PROFILE: The real Patrick Melrose: the man behind the Sky series starring Benedict Cumberbatch: Edward St Aubyn wrote five books about Patrick Melrose, his literary alter-ego (David Sexton, 9/07/18, Radio Times)
    -PROFILE: The Sins of His Father: A catastrophic childhood, a drug-ravaged youth—real-life personal disaster as the grist of captivating literature. (Sam Sacks, January 28, 2012, WSJ)
    -PROFILE: Edward St. Aubyn: A Writer’s Suicide Pact: Truth, Fiction, and Surviving One's Life (John Freeman, May 19, 2015, LitHub)
    -PROFILE: Edward St Aubyn is getting used to happiness (Evening Standard, 26 April 2011)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Edward St Aubyn (Louise Swinn, Jan 26, 2015, WheelerCentre)
    -INTERVIEW: Edward St Aubyn on fiction and the complexity of truth: Regarded as one of the finest English novelists of his generation, he overcame child abuse and drug addiction to address these subjects in prose (Jonathan Derbyshire October 20 2017, Financial Times)
    -PODCAST: Edward St Aubyn's King Lear and the future of literary fiction (Guardian Books Podcast, 12/19/17)
    -GUARDIAN BOOK CLUB: Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn (John Mullan, 17 Jun 2011, The Guardian)
    -BBC BOOK CLUB: Mother's Milk (James Naughtie, BBC 4)
    -ESSAY: The truth in facts is a derelict ruin: forging a self through fiction (Sara Baker, Hektoen)
    -TRIBUTE: My hero: Edward St Aubyn (Ann Patchett, 8 May 2012, The Guardian)
    -BOOK LIST: The 100 best books of the 21st century (The Guardian)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: edward st aubyn (You Tube)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Edward St Aubyn (Publishers Weekly)
    -ARCHIVES: Edward St Aubyn (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Review: Patrick Melrose: Vol I and Vol II by Edward St Aubyn — snobbery, brutality and irony: Edward St Aubyn’s tragicomic novels deserve a prize (John Sutherland, May 12 2018, , Times uk)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Medical-Grade St. Aubyn: On "The Patrick Melrose Novels" (Adam Ross, May 4, 2013, LA Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Artist of the abyss: Binge-reading the tragicomic novels of Edward St Aubyn (Christian Lorentzen, May 25, 2018, TLS)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Dark Visionary: Edward St. Aubyn demonstrates the ongoing relevance of the novel (Douglas Murray, February 16, 2018, National Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Poison Flow: Edward St. Aubyn takes on the English upper class. (Neel Mukherjee, 1/01/09, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Dollars Damn Me: Edward St. Aubyn’s vicious cycle of inheritance (Jenny Davidson, Summer 2012, Bookforum)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Hope Stings Eternal: Five novels about toxic family dynamics and England’s decadent upper crust (Eric Banks, Feb/Mar 2012 , Bookforum)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Splendor and Wreckage (Victoria Beale, March 20, 2012, New Republic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels: The Fragile Redemption of a Mercilessly Examined Life (Judy Berman, May 27, 2015, FlavorWire)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Monsters In Black Tie: A World Of Cliques And Class (Mark Harril Saunders, 8/06/12, NPR)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Classic read: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn (Fiona Wilson, 6/04/16, Times uk)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Medical-Grade St. Aubyn: On "The Patrick Melrose Novels" (Adam Ross, MAY 4, 2013, LA Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Edward St Aubyn and the Patrick Melrose Novels (Michael K Freundt, October 6, 2014)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: High Life (Sebastian Horsley, Slightly Foxed)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Tell No One: A Novelist's Brave Response to a Father from Hell: 'The Patrick Melrose Novels' (Dan Barrett, 05 Apr 2012, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Literary absurdity; The work of Edward St. Aubyn (Robert Fulford, 15 September 2015, The National Post)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (Hungry Reader, Of Books and Reading)
    -REVIEW: of A Clue to the Exit by Edward St Aubyn (Justine Jordan, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Clue to the Exit (Trine Tsouderos, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Clue to the Exit (Julia Jenkins, Shelf Awareness)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge by Edward St Aubyn (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (David Leavitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Jeff Alford, Run Spot Run)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Joan Frank, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Stuart Austin)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Michael D. Langan, NBC 2)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Susan Juby, Montecristo)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (Tzer Island)
    -REVIEW: of On the Edge (The Humble Book Giant)
    -REVIEW: of Nevermind by Edward St Aubyn ()
    -REVIEW: of Nevermind (The Goalie's Anxiety)
    -REVIEW: of Nevermind (Barry Schwabsky, Hyperallergic)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn (Edmund White, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Alex Clark, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Rachel Cooke, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Charles McGrath, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (James Wood, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Michael Arditti, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Francis Wyndham, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Graeme Allister, The Skinny)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Jessica Winter, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Simon Baker, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Momus)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Write gear)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Dolce Bellezza)
    -REVIEW: of Mother's Milk (Margie Taylor)
    -REVIEW: of At Last by Edward St Aubyn (James Lasdun, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Adam Mars-Jones, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (The Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Jessica Winter, Slate)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Ben Hamilton, The Millions)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Philip Womack, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (iNDEPENDENT.IE)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (André Alexis, The Globe and Mail
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Vicky Booth, Readings)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Asylum)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (James Wood, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (francine Prose, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Theo Tait, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times)
    -REVIEW: of At Last (Country Life)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (The Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Anthony Cummins, the Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (John Mullan, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Kate Kellaway, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (John Dugdale, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Charles McGrath, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Jason Diamond, FlavorWire
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Alexander Benaim, Bookforum)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Sam worley, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (William H. Pritchard , Washington Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Benjamin Errett, National Post)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Robert Fulford, National Post)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Robert Weibezahl, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Henry Hitchings, FT)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Viv Grioskop, Daily Express)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Lionel Shriver, The Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Anne Enright, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Louise Jury, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Muna Khan, Dawn)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Kevin Thomas, Guernica)
    -REVIEW: of Lost For Words (Tim Martin, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Lost for Words (Peter Kemp, Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn (Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar (Kate Clanchy, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar (Jane Krebs, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar (William Moore, Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar (The Scotsman)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar (Lisa Gorton, australian Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Dunbar (Keith Miller, Literary Review) TV SERIES:
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Edward St Aubyn (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Patrick Melrose (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Mother's Milk (IMDB)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Patrick Melrose (Metacritic)
    -PROFILE: Benedict Cumberbatch takes on a dream role in Showtime’s ‘Patrick Melrose’ — thanks to Reddit (Yvonne Villarreal, May 12, 2018, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Hamlet on heroin: Edward St Aubyn on the 20-year struggle to get Patrick Melrose on screen (Mark Lawson, 12 May 2018, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: "Patrick Melrose": Benedict Cumberbatch's darkness fix The actor shatters our existing high expectations in bringing Edward St. Aubyn's complicated hero to Showtime (Melanie McFarland, May 12, 2018 , Salon)
    -PROFILE: David Nicholls on Adapting the ‘Ultimate Subjective Experience’ of ‘Patrick Melrose’ (Danielle Turchiano , 6/04/18, Variety)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Sam Wollaston, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Michael D. Langan, NBC 2)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Sonia Saraiya, Vanity Fair)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Ira Madison III, Daily Beast)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Glenn Garvin, reason)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Allison Keene, Collider)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Jen Cheney, Vulture)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Ken Tucker, Yahoo!)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (John Anderson, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Troy Patterson, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Lucinda Smyth, Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Emily Temple, Lit Hub)
    -REVIEW: of Patrick Melrose (Robert Lloyd, LA Times)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Mother's Milk (Tara Brady, Irish Times)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Mother's Milk (Time out)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Mother's Milk (Mark Adams, Screen Daily)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Mother's Milk (David Parkinson, Empire)

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