Review: Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn

Note to self: summery and summary are two totally different things.

Mother’s Milk is the fourth (of five) book in the Patrick Melrose series; it’s not my favourite, however, I have devoured and adored almost all the series now and a review on at least one of the books has become necessary. I’d recommend reading the series in order, although, I would argue Mother’s Milk is the one that can be read as a stand alone novel. The first three novels, Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope were all written in the early 90s and span the first 30 years of Patrick Melrose’s turbulent upper class life. Mother’s Milk, however, revisits Patrick in his early 40s, married and seemingly settled. The last novel, At Last, I have yet to read.

Edward St Aubyn is possibly one of the most beautifully adroit writers I have ever encountered, there is nothing unnecessary in what he includes or has his characters observe.

Mother's Milk by Edward St AubynWriting with the scathing wit and bright perceptiveness for which he has become known, celebrated English author Edward St. Aubyn creates a complex family portrait that examines the shifting allegiances between mothers, sons, and husbands. The novel’s perspective ricochets among all members of the Melrose family — the family featured in St. Aubyn’s widely praised trilogy, Some Hope — starting with Robert, who provides an exceptionally droll and convincing account of being born; to Patrick, a hilariously churlish husband who has been sexually abandoned by his wife in favor of his sons; to Mary, who’s consumed by her children and overwhelming desire not to repeat the mistakes of her own mother. All the while, St. Aubyn examines the web of false promises that entangle this once illustrious family — whose last vestige of wealth, an old house in the south of France — is about to be donated by Patrick’s mother to a New Age foundation. An up-to-the-minute dissection of the mores of child-rearing, marriage, adultery, and assisted suicide, Mother’s Milk showcases St. Aubyn’s luminous and acidic prose — and his masterful ability to combine the most excruciating emotional pain with the driest comedy. Summary from GoodReads.

I have been sitting here for a while now, wondering how on earth to talk about the brilliance that is Edward St Aubyn. The above summary from GoodReads is so succinct it almost needs no elaboration.

I feel for those who first experience Patrick Melrose here, at his most selfish (I found him fouler here than in the midst of Bad News). However, this is Patrick at his most human and (possibly) relatable, meandering through the difficulties we all experience in life, regardless of class. He is a husband and father now, struggling to cope with his wife’s abandonment in favour of their second child. He has an affair with a past fling and crams as much prescription drugs and alcohol into his system as he is able. This is his second wave addiction, in place of a mid-life crisis.

His repellant neediness seeps through the novel, and rather than coping he stubbornly digs his heels into each issue to avoid addressing it. His ever patient wife Mary is wonderful, but equally at fault with her lack of communication. She enjoys her move from needy Patrick to needy child and decides to stay silent, ignoring their marital issues. This is Patrick’s perpetual failure, his inability to communicate effectively about how he feels. He locks his feelings away until they bursts out of him, aggressively scorching those around him.

Dealing with loss is a constant theme throughout the novel; ranging from Patrick coping with his past, to his family’s loss of his childhood home in southern France. The beauty of the writing leaves these realisations to simmer within you, they are never made overtly, but left to appear to you like apparitions post-reading.

St Aubyn’s novels are some of the best you will ever read, begin with Never Mind if you can, but if you only read one, make it Mother’s Milk.

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4 Comments on "Review: Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn"

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Charlie
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I don’t think I’d ever heard of the author until you mentioned him. I’ll have a look for his work when I go on my next book spree, from what you’ve written I think I’d like it.

RDAndoff
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@nomoreparades I’ve never heard of this author, and now I’m so curious! Immediately librarying whatever I can find.

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[…] of the Elysian Prize, a literary fiction award. While it didn’t grip me in the way his Patrick Melrose novels had, his hilarious take on the egoism of agenda* and thorough characterisation won me […]