6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 16 October 2012
Mother's Milk is the fourth of Edward St Aubyn's quintet of Melrose novels, and although the book can stand alone, it is advisable to read the Some Hope trilogy beforehand, as its torrid backstory illuminates the causes of Patrick's discontent. The present narrative drifts over four consecutive Augusts and runs from 2000 to 2003. St Aubyn employs multiple perspectives and channels the family's disintegration through the outlets of Patrick, Mary (his wife), and Robert, their eldest son. But this new epoch offers no redemption for Patrick, his life a confusion of marriage, adultery, and kids.
Patrick's problems with the Melrose brood are legion: Mary mollycoddles their newborn son Thomas; his mother, Eleanor, has disinherited him in favour of a New Age sect called the Transpersonal Foundation; and Robert, analytic and introverted, is a gifted clone of his father, an outcome for which Patrick carries the blame. The viciousness of Patrick's responses to these situations highlights his father's ominous influence. But his neurotic avoidance of replicating David's insidious faults hinders him from being a good father, as he wastes too much time in cerebral, drunken reflection rather than delivering practical, loving care. The book, then, charts Patrick's unsuccessful negotiations among those vying for (or deflecting) his attention, negotiations which he fails to perform convincingly.
The novel's prose is stunning, insightful and aphoristic, but there are some troubling discontinuities between this book and the previous three. In the 1990 of Some Hope, Patrick is thirty, while in the year 2000, the year in which Mother's Milk commences, he is forty-two. The combined effect of the inconsistencies is jarring. If they are a genuine oversight by St Aubyn, then fine; but if they are not, then what is their significance?
Ultimately, though, it is a rather depressing read. The comedy is lacklustre, and while Patrick's arguments with Seamus, the New Age charlatan, may be hilarious, they are the only islands of fun in this sea of despondency. St Aubyn writes movingly of the decaying relationship between Patrick and his moribund mother, and although her enfeeblement elicits his most stinging vitriol, the emotional to-and-fro with assisted suicide is both honest and revealing. But its placing at the denouement only resettles the veil of misery draped over the entire book, a veil that will hopefully be drawn aside in the final instalment.
88 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on 1 October 2006
The story is painful; the setting all too familiar and real; writing suffused with irony, metaphors and witticisms - behold Mother's Milk. Hermoine Lee, the chair of the judges of this year's Booker entries, described this book as "wickedly funny." And she would be right.
I began this book with no particular enthusiasm, but a little research on the internet gave me enough background about the author to place the work in its context. And this work centres around one theme - the place of a mother in, and how it pervades into the depth of every aspect of, a simple family.
Patrick Melrose is suffering from a midlife crisis. His wife, Mary, has just given birth to her second son, Thomas, and has become extremely close to him - to the point of sacrificing her sexual, and to some extent, emotional connection with her husband. Patrick, the lawyer, successfully manages to pass on his sarcasm and twisted daggers of wit straight to his precocious first son, Robert, who, by the age of five, becomes a master in impersonating other people.
While St Aubyn takes us through the functioning of this rather functional family, we see each character in relation to their mother, and how it has shaped their past, present, and future. The contrast between self-sacrificing Mary's self-obsessed mother and the betrayed and disappointed Patrick's philanthropist and neglectful mother is incisive. The novel touches among various aspects of contemporary family life, particularly of parenting, marriage, relationships, trust, adultery, and euthanasia.
The novel is described through wide-ranging narratives during four summers of 2000 to 2003. The beauty of St Aubyn's prose lies in his choice of the person through whom he narrates each section. At first, we hear the funny and sometimes deceptively cruel Robert, and his slow transformation into the persona that is his father. Then comes Patrick himself, with his disappointment with his wife, his self-loathing, and the guilt he feels about committing adultery. Third comes Mary, and we see the maternal side to St Aubyn's story. The final summer is rather nondescript, and serves its purpose well.
The lack of any ciches, be it in the plot, the prose, or the characters, came as a welcome relief. The normality of the characters was most striking. One cannot elevate the moral stature of any character; nor would the intelligent reader. If he did, he is missing the author's loud and clear message.
The criticisms of the so-called New Age practices, and of the American lifestyle, particularly in the post 9/11 era, or as Patrick calls it, the 9/12 era, are well-founded, and in a style much reminiscent of Oscar Wilde mercilessly dissecting Victorian hypocrisies in his play, are explored with unabashed saracasm.
This book may not linger on in your mind as a powerful and evocative novel. But, it does have several thought-provoking ideas which merit consideration... If that is not good enough for you, you ought to read this novel for the sheer beauty of St Aubyn's prose.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Following on from the Patrick Melrose trilogy (The Patrick Melrose Trilogy), we meet Patrick again when he is 42. This novel takes place over four summers, from the birth of Patrick's second son, Thomas, to his third year. Although this book can be read alone, it makes more sense if you have read the trilogy first and I would urge you to do so. As much of the first three books were about, either directly or indirectly, Patrick's relationship with his father, we now move on to the non relationship with his mother, Eleanor.
When we first meet Patrick, at the age of five, he is living in France with his abusive and unpleasant father and his alcoholic mother, Eleanor. Having been through drug addiction, Patrick's self destructive behaviour has led him to inherit Eleanor's alcoholism. As always, his sense of injustice is heightened by his parents behaviour - in this case, Eleanor's disinheriting his sons, Robert and Thomas, and leaving his childhood home to a man who is running a self help, new age centre. The family are supposed to be able to use the house for a holiday in the summer, but Patrick's sense of acute anger and misery makes the whole event something of an endurance test and you can easily understand why his wife, Mary, retreats into the more uncomplicated love she shares with Thomas. The finale of these exruciating holiday trips is an ill advised attempt to holiday in the States.
Edward St Aubyn writes such stunning and beautiful prose the book is a delight. You are instantly aware of what each person is thinking and feeling and he writes of what the children are experiencing and thinking with intensity. Robert is obviously a gifted and bright little boy, but St Aubyn uses Thomas's more uncomplicated and valid feelings, as the book progresses. This whole novel, in fact, encompasses far more points of view than the earlier books, which are told mainly from Patrick's point of view. I liked Mary and sympathised with her, while still seeing Patrick's point of view, as I was familiar with his life story and why he was attuned to find doom in every event and retreat into sarcasm as an armour.
Although the book sounds depressing, there are many humourous moments in all of the books. The trip to America, in particular, had me laughing out loud. Patrick is so unpleasant, so funny, so vulnerable, that he is one of my favourite fictional characters. I rate all these books highly and I am looking forward to the last book in the series, At Last with great anticipation.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Having read and enjoyed his previous trilogy I was really looking forward to Mother's Milk. Sadly, I was very disappointed.
Patrick has now married and has two children. Having been rejected emotionally by his mother (and abused by his father) he now finds himself pushed out by his wife as she seems to devote all her time and energy into being a good mother. His own mother continues to be spiteful and vindictive - she is in the process of handing over her large property in the south of France to a new age charlatan.
Young Robert's childish reflections and observations are very funny but surely not age appropriate? Patrick is very self-centred and is sinking into alcoholism and thinking constantly about how he can have sex with one of their house guests. All very tedious. Patrick is now working as a barrister. I have no idea how he achieved this position considering his drug-fuelled, lazy past.
It is all a bit uneven - though the best bits involved the appalling Seamus and his crackpot hippy theories. He is a very spiritual person but determined to grab the property and evict Patrick and his family as soon as possible.
Some clever writing and some sharp observations but in the end I did not really care enough.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
This is a beautifully written and sharply comic short novel. The main pleasure of reading this novel is St Aubyn's precision with words; there's rarely a wasted sentence, and long winded and pointless descriptions of the environment or the characters that inhabit it are refreshingly absent. He is a prose stylist like John Banville, but the scales tip more to the comic than the tragic with St Aubyn's writing, and as a result the plot and characters seem a bit insubstantial at times. In many ways, overlooking the sex and language, Mother's Milk is a very Edwardian novel in the way it treats these fairly unlikeable upper class English characters--at times dismissive but sympathetic to their plights. The narratives of Robert, Patrick and Mary are crisp, wry and often very funny. Robert's entry to the world in the first section of the book is a sharp and startling introduction to the novel. Whilst it is not a book that will linger long in the mind of the reader, it is nonetheless a rewarding read.
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 11 December 2006
Mother's Milk is the most recent to date of St Aubyn's books centred on the family he has written about before. Shortlisted for 2006's Booker Prize, the story sees Patrick, lawyer and husband, juggling his love for his two new sons with his alarm at his wife Mary's distance now that she sees herself as a mother and not a wife. Mary is besotted with sons Robert and Thomas and weary from the demands of motherhood. Also on the scene are Patrick's mother, who is determined to seek retribution for the snooty arrogance of her own mother by embracing charitable causes, and can't see that she is repeating the same pattern set by her own mother in frittering her children's inheritance on anyone but her children. The charitable cause in question is the hippyesque healing community run by Seamus, a convincing Irish charmer, in the French mansion that Patrick's mother has bequeathed to him.
The prose is beautiful - complex in parts, unconventional, thought-provoking and peceptive about the feelings and thoughts of both small kids and a piqued husband. The former is something most male authors don't attempt - putting into words the charm of small children has been almost exclusively in the domain of female writers. St Aubyn manages to do this without resorting to cloying, nauseating, twee cliches: there is no cooing over the cuteness of tiny fingers or dimples here, no metaphorical and painful pinching of cheeks. Some have criticised the children's comments as being too mature for their age, but for me, they worked perfectly and acted as a reference to the fact that children are often far more aware of their surroundings and far more intelligent and perceptive than adults give them credit for.
St Aubyn is also very convincing on Patrick, an alcoholic, and, crucially, he manages to describe the destructiveness of the addiction without being depressing and grey, like James Kelman in the almost unreadable How Late It Was , How Late, or Gerard Woodward in the brave but still dismal I'll Go to Bed at Noon. In fact, there are parts that are downright funny, like the drunken outing to the off-licence to replace a botle of whisky that Patrick has been surreptitiously slugging. The tug of conscience between duty and selfishness as regards thoughts on his aged mother who Patrick sulkily feels has let him down are also insightfully and sometimes hilariously drawn. Patrick manages to be selfish but not wildly dislikeable - he has no guilt feelings about his infidelity, and even Mary accepts it with resigned stoicism- and yet somehow his vulnerability as regards his alcoholism and his obvious love for his sons save him from becoming an ogre.
The peripheral characters are also captured exquisitely: Margaret, the clucking, know-it-all and somewhat bovine child minder in particular is a delight.
So, five stars and a round of applause for St Aubyn's book
How could I have left this book to languish on my shelf for years before reading it? At first, I was bowled over by the sharp, witty prose, striking descriptions and amusing dialogue. This short novel follows the trilogy "Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope" about tensions within a dysfunctional upper middle class family, the Melroses. "Mother's Milk" can stand alone, but the books are probably best read in sequence, ending with the recently published "At Last".
Mother's Milk has an unusual opening, with a small boy (Robert) "remembering" the trauma of being born, the sense of insecurity in the "new world" outside the safety of his mother's womb. Or has the birth of his younger brother (Thomas) caused him to imagine all this? At any rate, it is interesting to be prompted to question just what a small child remembers from the beginning of life, before it is swamped by other impressions. Robert is, of course, ludicrously precocious and implausibly articulate. His cynical, upper middle class barrister father (Patrick) may have had a hand in this.
When the story moves on to the viewpoints of Robert's parents, my enjoyment wavered. All the characters begin to appear to be caricatures, so that you laugh often, but are rarely moved. The apparent reasons for Patrick's drunken mid-life crisis do not evoke huge sympathy. Although it must be frustrating that his do-gooding mother has disinherited him in favour of a half-baked "Transpersonal Foundation", Patrick still seems to be quite well off. His wife Mary's preoccupation with her new baby, possibly a reaction to her own mother's neglect, may get a bit wearing at times but does not really justify his infidelity with an old girlfriend. If you have read the earlier novels, the details of the story may make more sense. As it is, there is a little too much condensed "telling" of past events, rather than gradual "showing".
You may argue we are not meant to take it all too seriously but rather to enjoy the comical situations, laugh aloud at the humour and be stopped short by the occasional telling insight. Yet, there is an underlying sense of bleakness, so it came as no surprise to read in a review that Patrick is modelled, if loosely, on the author, who freely admits that he was raped by his father, rather as Patrick, it seems, was abused in the first novel, "Never Mind".
Yes, the attitude to old age in this book often seems cruel and lacking in empathy. Yes, the writing is rather crudely anti-American. You could also say it is truthful, if one-sided. My main criticism is that the plot is thin and developed rather carelessly, with missed opportunities to create to develop scenes.
Despite this, St Aubyn is clearly a very talented writer.
Sharply sardonic and witty throughout, this devastatingly honest novel had me laughing aloud as it described the home life of Melrose family, moving effortlessly from one denizen to another demonstrating the depth of feeling and the shifting hierarchies of family fortunes. Mothers come in for a less than gentle drubbing here - they just can't get it right. In fact they seem to labour in this book to get everything especially wrong. They are either deluded, devoid of `proper' feelings, or in one case in love with their child rather than their husband. Her enamourment with second child, Thomas, does seem excessive, though not improper. It is the maternal instinct writ huge across the sky in blazing letters. Nonetheless, true to a certain experience, I feel. Some women do get stuck in the wonderment of having a child, and it's only, perhaps, the opposite experience to post-natal depression. Nevertheless, it's hard on the father, as shown here.
This is merely one small element of the plot, to which excruciating attention will be riveted as the family home is given up by the husband, Patrick's mother, Eleanor, to a charlatan New Age sect with which she has become enamoured. It is a sadder story the deeper we go into it as Eleanor manoeuvres to retain a hold over the family's affairs while conversely losing her faculties and any semblance of the respect of her son. In some respects this is a savagely controlled working of the depredations and dilemmas of old age. Don't be put off, however, because it is also a story about children and the glorious wit is always present. Not least during a holiday in America which loses no opportunity to be scathing about the good old US of A.
There is no shortage, it must be said, of Patrick feeling sorry for himself. "He envied the male spider who was eaten straight after fertilizing the female, rather than consumed bit by bit like his human counterpart." One sympathises, but perhaps not as deeply as Patrick would like.
I didn't want this novel to end I was so captivated by the troubling dilemmas thrown up by the sheer confoundedness of family life. It is beautifully written and is a totally gripping read.
42 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2006
Edward St Aubyn's writing has reached a new maturity in Mother's Milk which is glorious to witness, not least in the opening scene which is a remarkable and original account of being born - torn from the womb into the 'loud desert' of life - by a highly precocious baby.
"The strange thing was that he felt as if he had been there before. He had known there was an outside all along. He used to think it was a muffled watery world out there and that he lived at the heart of things. Now the walls had tumbled down and he could see what a muddle he had been in. How could he avoid getting in a new muddle in this hammeringly bright place? How could he kick and spin like he used to in this heavy atmosphere where the air stung his skin?
"Yesterday he had thought he was dying. Perhaps he was right and this was what happened. Everything was open to question, except the fact that he was separated from his mother. Now he realised there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.
"He was an inconsolable wreck. He couldn't live with so much doubt and so much intensity. He vomited colostrum over his mother and then in the hazy moment of emptiness that followed, he caught sight of the curtains bulging with light. They held his attention. That's how it worked here. They fascinated you with things to make you forget about the separation."
And all in all, right from the start, Mother's Milk turns out to be an extraordinary thing, a virtuoso balancing act of disgust and compassion, all to the background tinkling of some of the most beautiful, perfectly weighted writing (and jokes) I've read in ages. It's all about the dreads and joys of families - rather like the Some Hope trilogy, to which it is a stand-alone sequel - with a soupcon of the New Age satire with which St Aubyn occupied himself in his non-Melrose novels, On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit. It starts with the tenderly comic birth scene mentioned above, and ends at the other end of life, with tragedy and muted reconciliation.
"She suddenly felt that both ends of life were absolutely terrifying, with a quite frightening stretch in between."
There are literally so many choice chunks I would like to extract - from Patrick's horrorstruck rediscovery of America, through his petulant and sarcastic arguments with the Irish 'shaman' in whose favour Patrick has been disinherited, to second child Thomas's brilliantly observed toddler-talk - that to do so would turn this into one of those Martin Amis pieces on Saul Bellow, where all he does is drop quote after quote. So I won't. Read it yourself instead and get in on the ground floor of what should, by all rights, be one of the novels of the year.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 June 2011
The writing standard is generally very high, vituperous and biting, about people I would take no pleasure in meeting in real life. Most impressed by St Aubyn's ability to get inside the mind of a clever child. Unusual. I found the novel claustrophobic, but that was an achievement in itself in a strange way.