20 Books of Summer #14 – St Aubyn

At Last by Edward St Aubyn – the fifth and final Patrick Melrose novel

Reading this sequence of semi-autobiographical novels this summer has been a wonderful experience, despite the challenging events chronicled within their pages. This fifth and final snapshot in the life of Patrick Melrose was published in 2011. As you might expect, it brings together elements from all four preceding novels, so there will be spoilers below – but if this doesn’t bother you – here are the links to my write-ups of the other books in the series:

  1. Never Mind – Patrick’s childhood in France in the mid-1960s, aged 5 upwards
  2. Bad News – Early 1980s a weekend in New York – Patrick, a heroin addict, goes to pick up his father’s ashes
  3. Some Hope – 1990 – Clean, Patrick attends a toff’s weekend party at which Princess Margaret is present – super set pieces.
  4. Mother’s Milk – 2000-3 – Married with kids, 4 summer’s worth of holidays, mostly in France.

Each of the novels has been primarily set during a particular time in Patrick’s life, they are snapshots with flashbacks; the fifth is no exception and mirrors Bad News, being set around the funeral of Patrick’s stroke-stricken mother Eleanor, who finally died a couple of years after the events of Mother’s Milk, which had ended with her expressing a desire to go to Zurich.

We’re now in 2005, and At Last begins at Eleanor’s funeral service, and providing a sinister continuity, Nicholas Pratt, the last friend of Patrick’s father still living, is there and is being his usual bitchy self.

Patrick is now separated from his wife Mary and the boys, but Mary has come up trumps in organising the funeral for Patrick, who had been in New York again, to sign a power of attorney for his mother’s finances when she died. Eleanor’s trust fund, which had been paying out to the new aged charity she set up in their former home in France, now, finally comes to Patrick, but he’s not telling anyone about this yet.

Between speakers, Patrick thinks back on his time at The Priory, in the Suicide Observation Room in the Depression Wing. He’d had the DTs badly, and his month there was a turning point as he tried to give up alcohol and prescription drugs.

It had felt so ancestral to have delirium tremens, to bow down, after his disobedient youth as a junkie, to the shattering banality of alcohol.As a barrister he was reluctant nowadays to kill himself illegally. The alcohol felt deep, humming down the bloodline.

The moderator of his support group had made a joke in one of their sessions, truth hidden in levity, and Patrick remembers wishing he could be free of it.

‘Someone once asked me why mothers are so good at pushing our buttons,’ he said, ‘and the answer I gave was, “Because they put them there in the first place.”‘

Patrick’s marriage may have collapsed mainly due to his drinking, but the sainted Mary didn’t give up on Eleanor, continuing to visit her in the Kensington care home when Patrick didn’t. Mary learns more of Eleanor’s complex relationship with Patrick’s father David, and in scenes which echo but go beyond those in the first book, we learn more about the depths of David’s depravity and sadism, and Eleanor’s inate masochism and complicity in what happened.

We also learn more about Eleanor’s family through her older sister Nancy, the middle one of the Jonson girls, who had flown in for the funeral. Nancy is broke, and has long been jealous of Eleanor’s philanthropy, which was inspired by in its turn by their great-aunt Virginia, who did good works in the early 1900s building a township for poor foik. The three sisters certainly had a feel of King Lear’s daughters.

At the wake, Patrick is forced to introduce his sons to Nicholas, who is really outdoing himself on the sarcasm front:

He could tell he had unsettled Patrick and didn’t want to lose the chance to consolidate his work.

‘I can’t help thinking how much your father would have enjoyed this occasion,’ panted Nicolas. ‘Whatever his drawbacks as a parent, you must admit he never lost his sense of humour.’

‘Easy not to lose what you never had,’ said Patrick, too relieved that he could speak again to avoid the mistake of engaging with Nicholas.

I had been slightly guilty of associating Nicholas with Anthony Powell’s Widmerpool in The Dance to the Music of Time sequence of novels – but Nicholas always was a snide piece of work, his bumbling toff buffoon an act that became his real character. Nicholas will provide the climax to the events of this novel, but I won’t spoil that further.

And what of Patrick? Well the final scenes see him realising with clarity, perhaps for the first time in his life, where he is and what he needs now. At forty-five, Patrick Melrose has finally grown up. (10/10)

Source: Own copy. Picador paperback, 264 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s (affiliate links)

In conclusion…

Reading this series of five novels over a few weeks has been the best way to read them – the ways that they link together with all the flashbacks makes for a whole that is enormously satisfying. St Aubyn’s writing is exquisite whether creasing us up with laughter at the perfect bon mot, or torturing us with the awful things that happened to Patrick. Read closely together, we also get so much more of the overall state of Patrick’s mind and mental processes – I don’t know how anyone who read them as they were published over a number of years could wait so long to read the next installment. The comparisons with Powell’s cast of wife-swapping, philandering, rich young people persists though – particularly in the third volume, Some Hope. Being semi-autobiographical in their inspiration, you can’t but hope that the books provided some kind of therapy for their author.

There is plenty of tragedy in these pages, but there is so much wit, and hope too. Just under 1000 pages of wonderful writing – I can’t recommend this series enough.

Don’t just take my word for it, Jacquiwine loved them too – read here and here for her two-part write-up.

7 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #14 – St Aubyn

  1. JacquiWine says:

    Wonderful! I’m so glad you adored these novels, too. The similarities with Powell’s Dance are rather interesting, aren’t they? The setting within a wealthy, privileged milieu, the attraction of following key individuals over time, the sheer quality of the writing and characterisation – I could go on! Like you, I think the books are best read in quick succession, particularly as series as a whole is so immersive.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I tried reading Mother’s Milk in isolation back when it got Booker shortlisted – but it didn’t work at all for me on its own. Now having read all five in quick succession, I got how they all fitted and worked so well together. I didn’t really think of Powell until the end, I was concentrating on looking for Shakespearian influences! (I should go on to resume reading Powell now – I got distracted after vol 4 before.)

  2. Café Society says:

    I’d also tried to a couple of these in isolation and failed to get into them. If I didn’t already have two other massive sequences on my winter reading list I might think about having another attempt.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That’s why I was so perplexed at Mother’s Milk being shortlisted for the Booker because it doesn’t work out of sequence. I can only presume the judges had read the others.

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