The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – part 2, the individual books

Earlier this week, I posted a piece with some overarching thoughts on Edward St Aubyn’s five-part sequence of books, The Patrick Melrose novels. (If you missed this, do consider going back to read it – you can find the link here.) In short, the series charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It’s also one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

In this follow-up post, I’m going to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight. If you’re thinking of reading the series, hopefully this will give you an idea of what to expect from it.

The first book, Never Mind, explores Patrick’s childhood – in particular, the torturous summer he spends with his sadistic father, David Melrose, and wealthy, alcoholic mother, Eleanor, at the family’s (or rather Eleanor’s) house in the South of France – Patrick is just five years old at this point. It is a shallow, privileged world, one in which disdain, ignorance and abject neglect are allowed to flourish and fester.

There are a number of key incidents in this book, most notably Patrick’s first experience of sexual abuse at the hands of his father – a practice that continues unchallenged for the next three years. Eleanor, on the other hand, is either too week or drunk to intervene. (There is a suggestion in the books that Eleanor is aware of David’s ongoing abuse of her son but is too frightened to do anything to stop it.)

Naturally, on account of the subject matter, this is a difficult book to read, devastating in its emotional intensity and impact. The abuse scene is all the more powerful for its subtlety and understated nature, a technique that leaves it to the reader’s imagination to complete the distressing picture.

Max has already written an excellent review of this book, which I would encourage you to read as it delves into many of the book’s strengths. Before moving on, I’d just like to highlight one aspect of St Aubyn’s style that stood out for me – namely, his ability to convey such astute insights into character through the smallest of actions or details.

…he [David] leaned over and picked up a half-smoked Montecristo cigar. One was ‘supposed’ to remove the paper band from the cigar, and so David left it on. To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar. (p. 90, Never Mind)

Book two, Bad News, finds Patrick at twenty-two, flying to New York to collect his father’s ashes whilst in the throes of multiple addictions. Strung out on various cocktails of speed, cocaine, heroin and alcohol, Patrick tries to reconcile his feelings about David’s death, a process that takes him to a nightmarish abyss, characterised by the relentless chorus of voices that haunt his hallucinatory dreams.

There is some brilliant writing about the physical and emotional impact of drug addiction here, particularly given the pernicious demons from Patrick’s past. However, it is the acerbic gallows humour that really stands out for me – passages such as the following in which Patrick discusses his father’s argumentative nature with an old family friend, Anne, following a viewing of the body at the funeral parlour.

‘So you liked being with him in a place he didn’t complain about.’

‘Exactly,’ said Patrick. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck, and for a while I expected him to sit up in his coffin, like a vampire at sunset, and say, “The service here is intolerable.” Then we would have had to go to three or four other funeral parlours. Mind you, the service was intolerable. They sent me to the wrong corpse.’

‘The wrong corpse!’ exclaimed Anne.

‘Yes, I wound up at a jaunty Jewish cocktail party given for a Mr Hermann Newton. I wish I could have stayed; they seemed to be having such fun…’ (p. 41, Bad News)

By book three, Some Hope, thirty-year-old Patrick has experienced some success in conquering his drug addiction, a habit he now recognises as concealing a deeper struggle – the fight to avoid turning into his father.

In many ways, this novel reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time, which I have written about here. Some Hope revolves around a glamorous party hosted by the Melroses’ old acquaintance, Bridget – also present at the house during that fateful summer portrayed in Never Mind.

It is, in one sense, a biting social satire in the style of Powell and Waugh, replete with casual cruelties and cutting remarks. The guest of honour at the party is Princess Margaret, a woman who behaves in the most callously to various guests, particularly the French Ambassador, who comes close to creating a diplomatic incident, and Bridget’s young daughter, Belinda. To accentuate the Powell comparison even further, there is even a scene featuring a painting by Poussin – surely a nod to the title of Dance.

In book four, Mother’s Milk, we find Patrick in his early forties, living with his kind and grounded wife, Mary, and their two young children, Robert and Thomas. It is a book about mothers and the influence they bring to bear on their children. More specifically, Eleanor’s failures of Patrick throughout his life; the negative impact of Patrick’s maternal grandmother on Eleanor herself; and finally, Mary’s very different approach to motherhood, one that reflects her nurturing nature and unbridled capacity for love.

While Patrick knows he has already passed on some of his preoccupations and anxieties to Robert, there may still be time to take a different approach with Thomas, one that prevents the toxic fallout from tainting the life of his youngest son.

He [Patrick] was obsessed, it was true, with stopping the flow of poison from one generation to the next, but he already felt that he had failed. Determined not to inflict the causes of his suffering on his children, he couldn’t protect them from the consequences. Patrick had buried his own father twenty years ago and hardly ever thought about him. At the peak of his kindness David had been rude, cold, sarcastic, easily bored; compulsively raising the hurdle at the last moment to make sure that Patrick cracked his shins. It would have been too flagrant for Patrick to become a disastrous father, or to get a divorce, or to disinherit his children; instead they had to live with the furious, sleepless consequence of those things. (pp. 88-89, Mother’s Milk)

As the series draws to a close with the final book, At Last, there are signs that Patrick may be able to find some kind of way forward, a sense of release from the traumas and frustrations of the past. At the age of forty-five, he is attending his mother’s funeral, an opportunity to let go of longstanding anger and resentment. Surely his mother’s passion for philanthropy, for using her money to try and save the disadvantaged children of the world, stemmed from a subconscious feeling that she had failed to protect her own son. As the full horror of Eleanor’s life with David is finally revealed, Patrick realises that it is not the end of closeness but the end of longing for such feelings of intimacy and protection that he must mourn.

By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this series is a masterpiece of modern fiction. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.

23 thoughts on “The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – part 2, the individual books

  1. Tredynas Days

    Good to be reminded of the quality of EStA’s writing. Interesting to hear of the likeness to Powell – must dig out my unread random copies from the Dance sequence. I remember thinking of Waugh as I read the 5 novels – but they (Melrose) have a deeper sense of felt life, I think

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I’d agree with that assessment of the Melrose novels vs Waugh. As you say, there’s something deeper here, a more profound realisation of certain aspects of life. Of the Waughs I’ve read so far, A Handful of Dust is probably the closest in terms of feel or tone. As for the Powell, I really can’t recommend that series highly enough. Easily one of the best and most rewarding things I’ve read in recent years (if not my entire life). I’d love to encourage you to dig it out! ;)

      Reply
  2. BookerTalk

    This is a fabulous resource Jacqui. I’ll come back to it when I finally get around to reading St Aubyn (now I’ve cleared up my confusion about him and Maupin)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you feel it will be of use. My advice would be to persevere, even if you find the first couple of books distressing in terms of subject matter. I think it will be worth it in the end.

      Reply
  3. Violet

    I’ve had this series on my radar for a while but I’m not sure how I’d go with the content. I did have a peek at the first book at the library and quietly put it back on the shelf. I’m glad you liked them so much.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The content is incredibly hard-hitting, particularly in the first two books which delve into the emotional impact of various acts of abuse. Nevertheless, there is cathartic quality to the ending, a sense of hope which goes some way towards blunting the pain…

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    The books seem very worthwhile. The mixing of very serious subject matter and humor can be tricky. In this wrong hands I think that this can lead to bad results. However, a skilled author can make it work very well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, but I think St Aubyn gets the balance just right. That caustic, sardonic wit is a key facet of Patrick’s personality, almost a coping mechanism of sorts in an attempt to blunt some of the pain.

      Reply
  5. Bob Pyper

    Typically astute analysis from you, Jacqui! You capture the key features of this remarkable sequence of novels. I re-read them last year, and, as with Powell, took away new insights from the further reading. The characterisation is wonderful. Each person is flawed. Patrick’s father is one of the true monsters of fiction. I saw an interview with Edward St Aubyn on YouTube, and he said that there is probably only one purely ‘good’, unflawed person in the books – Patrick’s wife. Having said that, it’s impossible to dislike Patrick, I think. Like St Aubyn himself, a true survivor. PS the links with Powell are interesting – the Melrose books also largely feature a single set-piece event or occasion, from which several consequences flow.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you, Bob – that’s very kind of you to say! Yes, virtually every character we encounter is flawed in their own individual way. As you say, Mary is probably the only truly humane person in the books. I think her calming influence on Patrick is hugely significant, clearly the making of him in those early mid-life years. Like you, I feel such a strong sense of empathy for Patrick. He’s damaged and he knows it – and that’s probably half the battle in certain respects. I’ll see if I can find that YouTube interview with St Aubyn – it sounds very interesting!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    I can see from the quotes that you use that Edward St. Aubyn is a very good writer. These books do sound very appealing, though I think book one would be a tough read. Good to hear the author is subtle in his portrayal of abuse. I will keep this series in mind for a future project.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really appreciate the precision in St Aubyn’s writing, but the content is pretty distressing at times. If it’s any consolation, I think it’s worth going through some of the pain of those early books to see how Patrick’s story develops in the end. There is a partial healing of sorts, a sense of coming to terms with some of the injustices of the past which feels fitting.

      Reply
  7. MarinaSofia

    I was determined to read this series, but the local library only had the third one available. I read it and was somewhat underwhelmed, but I think it is completely the wrong place to start. It did feel very Waugh to me. I’ll persevere.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you really need to start right at the beginning with this series. The first book is absolutely crucial to understanding Patrick’s psyche as his childhood experiences are so influential in shaping his outlook on life. As you’ve gathered, perseverance may well be the key! :)

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent post, Jacqui, and you really give a flavour of what the series is like. The writing certainly seems good, from the quotes you give, and the comparison with Powell intrigues. Definitely a series to embark on when I have an uninterrupted spell of reading lined up! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I wanted to give potential readers a sense of what they’d be letting themselves in for should they decide to embark on the series. It’s not for everyone — the treatment meted out to Patrick in those years is both cruel and brutal — but it does reward the investment in time and emotional energy.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have! In fact, I’d already watched it before I started reading the series. It’s an excellent adaptation, very faithful to the spirit of St Aubyn’s books.

      Reply
  9. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful post Jacqui. I adore the writing and you’ve given perfect examples of just how brilliant it is. I’m intrigued by the parallels you found with Powell – even more reason for me to get round to reading him!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I think the writing speaks for itself in many respects. Deliberate or otherwise, the potential connections to the Powell are fascinating. As Bob mentioned in his comment above, both of these series feature key gatherings or set pieces which have fundamental consequences for certain attendees/characters – typically funerals, dinner parties or other social events. I think you’d find The Dance very interesting indeed!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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