About a year ago, in a diner on eastern Long Island, I experienced one of those moments—to which writers seem especially prone—of rapt, unseemly over-interest in the people at the next table. Beautifully dressed for leisure, sleek and thin as whippets, the young, medicated-seeming mother and her slightly older husband were the sort of parents who transformed each moment with the tiny son into a unique and golden educational opportunity. As the father lectured his squirming child on the proper etiquette required to order a cheeseburger and chat up the waitress, his pedagogical technique had an unmistakable edge of the punitive and mocking. What made this chilling family scene even more compelling was my vague, unsettling sense that I’d met them all somewhere before.
My husband stole a long, sidelong glance at our neighbors. No, he said, we didn’t know them. But they were, he pointed out, the real-life counterparts of the main characters in Edward St. Aubyn’s extraordinary trilogy, Some Hope (2003), which we’d both finished a few months before, and which we’d spent the intervening time persuading our friends to read.
One hallmark of first-rate fiction is that it reveals the world as being populated by its characters. Something similar occurs with Mr. St. Aubyn’s marvelous new novel, Mother’s Milk, though this time what you keep noticing are not the withholding, sadistic fathers, but rather the besotted mothers whose passion for their children is so intense that it verges on the adulterous, forcing their cuckolded husbands to watch and suffer in approving paternal silence.
At the center of the novel is Patrick Melrose, the hero of Some Hope, which it’s helpful but by no means necessary to have read in advance of this book. Some Hope begins in the South of France, where the Melrose family lives, and where Patrick’s father, David, is first seen methodically drowning a colony of ants and calculating precisely how long he must talk to the maid before her arms start to ache painfully from the load of laundry she’s carrying. As it turns out, David’s barbarous cruelty extends well beyond the insect kingdom and the lower classes. He brutally molests his young son, torments his wife, and serves his guests a heady recipe of charm and humiliation.
It’s hard to imagine a bleaker domestic landscape, but what makes the trilogy so extraordinary and pleasurable to read is how beautifully Mr. St. Aubyn writes, his acidic humor, his stiletto-sharp observational skills, and his ability to alchemize these gifts into one quotable, Oscar Wildean bon mot after another. And what makes the book so moving, as a writer friend of mine said, is that you feel that its hero is trying at every moment, and with every cell of his being, not to turn into the asshole that he’s been programmed from birth to become.
That struggle is ongoing throughout Mother’s Milk, in which we catch up with Patrick some years after his marriage to the thoughtful and understandably disaffected Mary. He’s the father of two sons, and his slowly dying mother, Eleanor, has decided to leave his childhood home in Provence to a sleazy guru named Seamus and his sketchy New Age foundation. The book abounds in visions of motherhood gone hideously wrong, either through monumental self-interest (the sheer awfulness of Mary’s mother, Kettle, makes Eleanor seem almost beneficent) or through the sort of quasi-erotic attachment that makes Patrick feel progressively more alienated from that cozy trio composed of his wife and their two beautifully drawn little boys.
No contemporary writer writes more knowingly or eloquently from the point of view of the child who is smarter and more observant than the adults around him might wish to imagine. Mother’s Milk starts, nervily, with what I suppose is called a “birth memory”—in this case, that of Robert, Patrick’s older son, recalling his first experience of wrenching separation from his mother. The novel follows the family as the parents’ marriage unravels, as Patrick initiates a love affair with a witty and unhappy former girlfriend, and as he flirts with the sort of substance abuse that turned Bad News (the middle novel in Some Hope) into a dispatch from the private hell of a damned soul who simply couldn’t get high enough to lower the frequency of his own acute, self-lacerating awareness.
Near the end of Mother’s Milk, the Melrose family decides to cope with their exile from Patrick’s childhood paradise by taking a salutary, restorative trip to the United States. By now, the reader can pretty much predict how well this neat solution will work out, just as we can expect the vacation to provide Mr. St. Aubyn with yet another chance to display his gift for making us recognize a volley of hilariously barbed and enraged perceptions as the flailings of a character struggling not to drown in a sea of despair. Here, to take one example, are the anxious young Robert’s musings on the “hysterical softness” of his fellow passengers boarding the flight from Heathrow to New York, strangers displaying “a special kind of tender American obesity; not the hard won fat of a gourmet, or the juggernaut body of a truck driver, but the apprehensive fat of people who have decided to become their own airbag-systems in a dangerous world. What if their bus was hijacked by a psychopath who hadn’t brought any peanuts? Better have some now. If there was going to be a terrorist incident, why go hungry on top of everything else?
“Eventually, the Airbags dented themselves into their seats. Robert had never seen such vague faces, mere sketches on the immensity of their bodies. Even the father’s relatively protuberant features looked like the remnants of a melted candle.”
I’ve always hated the expression “writer’s writer,” with its implication of an audience even smaller and more narrowly limited than that of the “cult writer.” But Edward St. Aubyn allows the phrase its best possible interpretation. He’s the kind of writer who makes you notice the terrifying family at the next table, and who makes you want to write.
Francine Prose’s most recent novel is A Changed Man (HarperCollins).
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