The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn: An Appreciation

Once in a while, a book, or an author, finds its way into your hands and you’re forced to halt in your tracks.  You can do nothing except focus on the urgent matter at hand, which is to remain motionless until you’ve finished the whole glorious thing, however long it takes.  The Patrick Melrose Novels is a series of five sequential books about the turbulent and dysfunctional life of Patrick Melrose, written by British author Edward St. Aubyn.  The first four books are now available in an omnibus volume, published by Picador. The fifth in the series, At Last, has just been released.

The first in the series, Never Mind, chronicles a few days of the five year old Patrick, in which we learn about his American heiress mother, his sadistic English physician father, and Patrick’s developing psyche. It’s a glimpse of a summer in Provence, where life should be lovely for a child of such privilege.  A few characters move through the series, as does the house.  Cruel doesn’t begin to describe Patrick’s father, but Edward St. Aubyn observes the situation with a black and sardonic humor that makes the reader gasp and choke at the same time.

Bad News, the second installment, takes the now 22 year old Patrick to New York to claim the body of his father.  Like the earlier book, this volume takes place over a brief period of time—perhaps five days. Patrick is awash in his trust fund allowance and drowning in alcohol, heroin and cocaine.  His mission is fraught with personal landmines relating to his fractured relationship with his mother, his traumatic relationship with his father, and with girlfriends scattered back at home and in New York.  Patrick is an unstable mess, desperate for a fix, desperate for a cure, and makes us cringe as he meets old friends of his family, former drug suppliers, and obsequious funeral home employees.  We wince at his self-destruction, yet we know that of course he will conquer his demons, and we laugh at his sheer gall.

We were right to be optimistic and believe that Patrick would beat his own worst enemy—himself.  In Some Hope, the third installment, Patrick is now 30, stone cold sober, and on his way to a party thrown by some old family friends.  It is the party of the season, and Patrick understands the challenges he faces by seeing some of the people he knows he will meet.  It is a party of immense and ridiculous proportion, the kind that he abhors and mocks.  But it is just before and at this party where Patrick confronts his trauma head-on.  And it is through his revelation that we hope for Patrick’s longterm emotional well-being.  Patrick’s and St. Aubyn’s acidic and withering observations about the hosts and the party guests, and the privilege on display, are pretty hilarious.

The fourth volume, Mother’s Milk, is perhaps the most unsettling,  possibly the darkest of the four,  and the funniest.  Now married and a father of two young boys, Patrick and his family return to the family home in Provence for their annual summer holiday. Patrick now faces adult responsibilities, and his challenges to stay on the tightrope of emotional stability are fierce.  His mother now suffers from Alzheimer’s, his wife is constantly distracted with their two young boys, and sexual temptations from an old flame and random girls seize him with almost convulsive pain.  At the same time, treachery rains down on Patrick in the form of a New Age charlatan.  New Age charlatans are always great for laughs.  It’s maddening, it’s emotionally brutal, and it’s shockingly funny.

At Last is the final run for Patrick Melrose.  Patrick’s children are growing up, he lives alone.  Patrick reminds us of  his strange and difficult childhood, his mother’s frenzied generosity towards everyone but him, and his family’s poignant sorrow.  At Last is an ode to coming to terms with middle age.  It is compassionate, profound, beautiful, searingly funny, sad. The saddest part, however, is that it ends.