Volume 18 • Issue 28 | Nov. 25 - Dec. 2, 2005

“Mother’s Milk”
Edward St. Aubyn
Open City Books, $23

Photo by Simon Tyszko

Edward St. Aubyn follows up his successful trilogy “Some Hope” with a continuation of the Melrose family saga.

Meet the Melroses: St. Aubyn’s fictional, dysfunctional family

By Aileen Torres

The nuclear family figures prominently in the English author Edward St. Aubyn’s latest novel, “Mother’s Milk,” but don’t expect this book to be another humdrum literary take on the seamy underbelly of suburbia.

Instead of the familiar dark ruminations on the tensions behind creating and maintaining a facade of familial perfection, St. Aubyn’s follow-up to his third novel, “Some Hope,” is about a man going through a mid-life crisis—not because he has a perfect job, perfect wife, perfect kids and perfect house—but because he doesn’t have an acceptable anything in his life.

Patrick Melrose is an extremely unhappy man. He whines and complains a lot, and despite the fact that the novel is set in three parts, comprising the perspective of Robert, Patrick’s first-born son; Patrick himself; and Mary, his wife, the man-child in the middle undeniably stands out as the central character with the dominant point of view.

And why is Patrick so bitter? Well, for starters, his father molested him when he was child (a bit of information that’s only revealed in “Some Hope”). Then his mother Eleanor disinherits him from her will, which leaves him without the posh niceties of her luxurious house in the French countryside. Unfortunately for Patrick, his mother, who was never really much of a mother in the first place—where else would this man’s bitterness come from?—decides on her deathbed to give this prized possession to Seamus, a former nursing-home worker who has reached enlightenment by tuning into his inner shaman. This charlatan guru somehow convinces Eleanor to part with her earthly possessions in the most “humane” way possible.

And so it comes to be that Eleanor, who has a martyr complex, replete with the insatiable desire to give and give in order to save humanity, slaps her son—upon whom she has always lacked the capacity to bestow unconditional love and attention—with the ultimate insult by signing away possession of the Melrose country home to the New Age foundation run by Seamus, who has no shame in exploiting Elanor’s blind generosity.

Emotionally spurned by his mother, Patrick gets a double whammy from his wife, who focuses all of her efforts on raising her two sons with as much care and nurturing as possible. But of course, her fundamental selflessness (her name is Mary) is not without a price, one that eats into their relationship, which has grown cold and “bureaucratic,” according to Patrick. His simple and immediate solution to his marital problems is to seek erotic intimacy with another woman, but even that doesn’t satisfy his deep-seated, basic yearning for love and respect from the two women who are supposed to matter most in his life.

All of the above leaves Patrick feeling jealous of his sons, particularly of his youngest toddler Thomas, who is coddled as Patrick has never been in his entire life.

The conflicting emotion runs counter to his desire to spare his children the emotional and psychological scars his parents inflicted upon him. (Good luck). Patrick, who thinks of his mother as a woman who “had pushed on to the next generation the parts of her experience she wanted to get rid of: divorce, betrayal, mother-hatred, disinheritance,” examines his own relationship with his children and comes to the conclusion that no matter how he treats them, his efforts will all be doomed: “Even if he was an affectionate father, even if he wasn’t making the gross mistakes his parents had made, the vigilance he invested in the task created another level of tension, a tension which Robert had picked up. With Thomas he would be different—freer, easier, if one could be free and easy while feeling unfree and uneasy. It was all so hopeless.”

In “Mother’s Milk,” St. Aubyn offers a sharp and critical take on love, In the end, despite all of Patrick’s vitriolic comments and musings, he is a character with whom one can sympathize, precisely because of his contradictions, complaints, and his refusal to keep quiet about his gut-wrenching longing for this most basic human need.


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