Tuesday, August 19, 2014

CBR6 #4: At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

Last year, I read and reviewed the first four novels in The Patrick Melrose series, and it was, without a doubt, some of the most eye-opening books I read last year. At Last is the final book of the series, and finishing it makes me so sad. My friend who introduced these books to me once said, "I am so jealous that you are getting to read these for the first time," and I understand now what she means because I feel so sad that I can never re-read these books for the first time again.

The series chart the life of Patrick Melrose, who starts on in Never Mind as a child who worships his parents but are later disappointed by them. By Mother's Milk, Melrose is married with children and struggling to come to terms his relationship with mother, who has been so absent in his life.

At Last reverts back to the same format that the first three books took (and that Mother's Milk departed from) -- spanning only a short period of time in a pivotal moment of Patrick's life. His mother, a woman who he has an intensely complex feelings towards, had passed away, and the book centers on her funeral and all the people who attend it. It shows how fractured so much of Patrick's life is, how his family is seen, and how he is seen, and the person that he has eventually become.

His father's old friend, Nicholas Pratt, who worships Patrick's cruel father (he passed away in Bad News, the second book), gets the first words in the novel: "Surprised to see me?" And as a reader who's been through the whole series, yea, I was. I was filled with mixed feelings of recognition, derision and glee because Nicholas Pratt represents how Patrick's abusive father was portrayed to the outside world, as an upright and honorable man. He also has a lot of the aristocratic pretensions that Patrick now hates, which is why his appearance is appreciated because it means there is more incisive commentary on how the affluent and entitled live.

Patrick's old friend, Johnny is also present. He is the first one he ever told about his father's abuse, and his point of view serves to show a grown-up, almost psychiatric insight into how the Melrose circle of friends/family work. Patrick's ex-lover, Julia, also attends the funeral, and his interactions with her shows us how he used to see women as an answer to all the questions he wants silenced, and how he's grown as a person.

Finally, there is his family. Mary, his wife (or estranged wife), once again took on a hyper-materal role, a presence that Patrick desperately craves in his life because of his own insistently neglectful mother; his sons serve as fresh eyes into the horrors that Patrick experienced as a child -- experiences he thought ordinary were seen with pity and empathy when he recounted them to his sensitive children; and there is his aunt, his mother's sister, a kleptomaniacal spendthrift who cannot let got of their family's wealthy past.

The beauty of St. Aubyn's writing isn't really in anything that happens; it's in the little revelations that Patrick experiences as he interacts with each person -- nothing is groundbreaking, but they all explain or answer how he has been raised and developed as a person, and in some way, show how far he's come since. The Patrick we see in At Last is still very much the same person, but also, in certain respects, completely different from his grown-up self in Some Hope, or even Mother's Milk (the third and fourth book, respectively.) St. Aubyn's genius lies in the fact that he's able to show how a person can retain certain parts of himself, while also maturing other parts without losing a clear sense that we are reading about the same person. And his writing is pretty fucking brilliant too.

I find writing reviews about these books exceedingly difficult because it's hard to put forth why exactly they are so good and absolutely need to be read, mostly because not a whole lot happens in it. But yes, the Patrick Melrose novels absolutely need to be read.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website. 

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