At Last: A Novel by Edward St. Aubyn (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011. 266pp)

Edward St. Aubyn is a British author and journalist. Educated at Westminster school and Keble College at Oxford University, he is the author of five novels on the Melrose family, one of which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Dysfunction and Abuse

Last in the series of novels based on protagonist, Patrick Melrose, At Last finds Patrick broke, divorced, suicidal, and about to bury his mother. Appropriately named, At Last is a sigh of sweet relief that the life of Patrick Melrose might be getting better. Upon starting the novel I realized with some disdain that I had missed a large portion of Patrick Melrose’s life. Overlooking the previous novels, Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and the award-winning Mother’s Milk, I, at first, thought the novel left something to be desired. But, then I researched Melrose’s sordid fictional past, and the novel became much more interesting.

To give a brief synopsis, Patrick’s life has been wrought with misfortune and despair. At five years of age, in the novel Never Mind, Patrick was raped by his father, which, sad to say was a self-portrait of the author himself. In Bad News, Patrick enters his twenties and gets addicted to every substance imaginable, while trotting down the all-too-familiar patch of narcissism and overall bleakness, much like the author in real life. In Some Hope, Patrick finally tells someone what his father did to him as a child, and Mother’s Milk chronicles the life of Patrick as a family man, and the disinheritance of his mother’s estate.

The Burial of the Matriarch

At Last finally begins (pun intended), and Patrick buries his mother.

“Patrick had little idea what to expect from the ceremony. He had been on a business trip to America at the time of his mother’s death and pleaded the impossibility of preparing anything to say or read, leaving Mary to take over the arrangements. He had only arrived back from New York yesterday, just in time to go to Bunyon’s funeral parlour, and now that he was sitting in a pew next to Mary, picking up the order of service for the first time, he realized how unready he was for this exploration of his mother’s confusing life” (112).

With the matriarch of the Melrose family now out of the picture, Patrick is forced to suffer through some unpleasant family members. In particular, his aunt Nancy is voraciously avaricious and predatory. With sharp wit, St. Aubyn writes,

“Oh Jesus, thought Patrick, let me out of here. He imagined himself disappearing through the floor with a shovel and some bunk-bed slats, the theme music of The Great Escape humming in the air. He was crawling under the crematorium through fragile tunnels, when he felt himself being dragged backwards by Annette’s maddening voice” (136).

Foibles for All

Edward St. Aubyn

I submit that St. Aubyn is perhaps the newest in a long line of authors who comment on elite society. Patrick is well-off, an aristocrat by any standard, and those who he surrounds himself with in the novel (mainly his family) are just as messed up as he. Even minor characters in the novel surge with foibles, from extreme narcissism to crudeness and hypocrisy, the novel ends up being a commentary on higher society overall.

With his delicate prose, St. Aubyn tells the story that the demons of one’s past are forever present, and that redemption may not always happen. The novel is one not of hope, but of reluctant acceptance.

“What exactly had he been mourning? Not his mother’s death—that was mainly a relief. Not her life—he had mourned her suffering and frustration years ago when she started her decline into dementia. Nor was it his relationship with her, which he had long regarded as an effect on his personality rather than transaction with another person. The pressure he had felt today was something like the presence of infancy, something far deeper and more helpless than his murderous relationship with his farther…mourning was not the word for this experience. He felt frightened buy also excited” (260).

Though this novel has some high prose, wit, intellect, and compassion, I think it would have been much better for me to start at the beginning of the series. Truthfully, after this novel I think I will go back and start from the beginning to better understand the life of St. Aubyn mirrored in his character Patrick Melrose. The layers of life are too great to just stick in one novel, and the strata should be unveiled one layer at a time. Unfortunately I started at the bottom, where I should have begun at the top. I think this piece rather reminds me of Jane Eyre or something the Bronté sisters would write. Should you like their commentary of high society, At Last is assuredly for you.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Another take:  The New York Times

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