Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels first came to my attention somewhere around five years ago in an email exchange with a blogger whose name I don’t remember, but whom I’d contacted because we seemed to have a significant overlap in our literary tastes. She was a particular fan of Graham Greene’s work, as am I, and I asked if she had similar authors whose work she’d recommend. She mentioned St. Aubyn and specifically the novel Mother’s Milk, which is actually the fourth in the five-novel sequence, although it’s quite readable without the background of the previous three novels, and, by what I could tell from reading interviews with St. Aubyn, not quite as dismal as the first.
These highly autobiographical novels revolve around Patrick Melrose, whose childhood and early adulthood greatly resemble those of St. Aubyn, including the physically and sexually abusive father and the complicit, emotionally detached mother. By Mother’s Milk, Patrick is married with two young sons: Robert, Patrick’s mini-me, with an impossibly advanced vocabulary and talent for sarcasm; and Thomas, an infant at the start of the novel and Patrick’s rival for the attention of Mary, Patrick’s wife. This roman á clef is full of mordant humor, with Patrick and Robert providing the kind of sardonic and often obnoxious observations that call Greene’s work to mind but with Waugh’s merciless wit. But amongst the ripostes is a serious examination of Patrick’s attempts to escape the life carved out for him by his parents, and then to try to give something better to Robert and Thomas than he was able to receive for himself.
St. Aubyn begins the book more from Robert’s perspective than Patrick’s, as Robert’s world is upended by the arrival of a baby brother, while we get glimpses of Patrick molding Robert into a younger version of himself: a spectator to his own life, brimming with clever arguments and incisive quips that often fluster the adults with whom he comes in contact. From there, the focus shifts (or, I suppose, returns, based on the three previous novels) to Patrick and his deteriorating marriage. Feeling abandoned by his wife in favor of their new child, Patrick first engages in a fairly stupid affair with an ex-girlfriend, then falls into the bottle, sabotaging most of the relationships in his life along the way … yet the story remains both humorous and surprisingly hopeful. This isn’t The Lost Weekend, where he has to hit some sort of bottom before he can turn himself around, nor is it a cautionary tale where he destroys everything before he has a chance to turn himself around. That lack of artifice gives the novel a base of relaism that makes the humor that much more effective: St. Aubyn, through his stand-in Patrick, cracks wise as a coping mechanism, but refuses to give up on his main character.