The Short Version: Patrick Melrose, now in his early 40s with a wife and two children, is dealing with his rapidly deteriorating mother – who has given away the family home to a New Age Foundation – and his own mid-life crisis.
The Review: This book, the fourth novel of the quintet and final in this collection, is the most stylistically unique of the four I’ve read so far. The first third is perhaps the most astonishing writing I’ve experienced in quite a long time. The other two thirds, fascinating in their own right, are nothing compared to this chapter from the perspective of a three-year-old Robert Melrose. The sequence of Patrick’s psychotic break in Bad News was virtuosic – this was simply unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
We’ve all read plenty of novels from the point of view of a youngster. Room is of course the most immediate to mind – and probably the most stylistically “inventive”, truly capturing the ‘tone’ of a young child. But I was a child much more like Robert Melrose (according to my parents, anyway): serious, contemplative, one who sees more than he should at such a young age. Robert, dealing with the concept of growing up long before any child should have to actively consider such a thing, has some of the most heart-rending lines in the entire series thus far. The following passage, as he reflects on the existence of his younger brother (only a few months old) and how he no longer experiences the world in that way made me cry on the train to work one morning:
“Robert imagined his mother talking to him when he had been sealed up in her womb. Of course he wouldn’t have known what her blunted syllables were meant to mean, but he was sure he would have felt a current flowing between them, the contraction of a fear, the stretch of an intention. Thomas was still close to those transfusions of feeling; Robert was getting explanations instead. Thomas still knew how to understand the silent language which Robert had almost lost as the wild margins of his mind fell under the sway of the verbal empire. He was standing on a ridge, about to surge downhill, getting faster, getting taller, getting more words, getting bigger and bigger explanations, cheering all the way. Now Thomas had made him glance backwards and lower his sword for a moment while he noticed everything that he had lost as well. He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of color landing on a page. Looking back, he could still see it: living in what would now feel like pauses: when you first open the curtains and see the whole landscape covered in snow and you catch your breath and pause before breathing out again.”
Now I know that’s quite a bit of text. But the sheer emotion and energy and power in that paragraph is impossible to split apart into excerpts. It’s the raw emotion of what it’s like to grow up, but articulated in such a way that 99% of people, let alone children, don’t ever quite grasp it.
The other two thirds of the novel, from Patrick and his wife Mary’s points of view respectively, are a bit less audacious. The final third, as the Melrose family visits America – including a return to New York that utterly pales in comparison to the last journey we read about – actually feels like a wasted opportunity. It gets a little preachy at times, involving perhaps a bit too much Bush-bashing even for my tastes. There was the inevitable 9/11 reference, the blind patriotism, the making fun of “Freedom Fries”… look, I was right there the whole time. I was a smart young liberal in the early 2000s – of course I was aware of all this. But it serves no bearing on this story other than to provide another outlet to comment on the dissolution of the British aristocracy. And it feels, to be quite honest, a bit hamfisted.
I think the section that I liked the most, to be totally honest, was the section in the middle. Patrick’s section. It wasn’t anything special like the first and it didn’t have the heaviness of the third. Instead it was just Patrick, dealing with yet another watershed moment of struggle. He’s unhappy and vaguely jealous of his own son, he embarks on an affair, his mother is actively ruining his future… it all fits quite well in the story of this man. The relationship between Patrick and his mother, actually is worth noting. Where David cast quite the shadow over the first three novels, Eleanor takes center stage here. She proves quite conclusively that it was both parents who fucked Patrick up.
I remembered watching my own grandmother slide into her final years – an irrevocable slide, loss of certain faculties… then of others… and finally an impossible moment of wanting to die and yet being unable to. My grandmother didn’t shaft our family out of anything but as she got older, she got increasingly difficult to deal with rationally. My sister and I were old enough to understand and comprehend her decline – but the circumstances of Eleanor’s decline, including the way it affects her descendants, struck a chord. In a somewhat strange way, a way I can’t entirely describe, other than to say that it’s something you’ve either experienced or you haven’t. And if you haven’t, it simply won’t strike you in the same fashion.
I miss the hope, though. From the end of the aptly titled Some Hope. Patrick had seemed to balance his life out a bit – lovely wife, smart son and new beautiful baby, got a job, got clean, got sober – but it doesn’t seem to’ve lasted. Before the book is out, he’s drinking to excess, tired of his wife, unfaithful to her, and even considering drugs again. Mid-life crisis? The inevitable result of Patricks’ story? It feels, still, like an incomplete piece of the full story – and At Last sits on the horizon for me, offering perhaps the final removal of Patrick’s familial burdens.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. A smarter, older novel than the previous three. It takes on a bit more than the previous novels and does, admittedly, suffer for that. But it is also brilliant and beautiful and heartrending. My god is it heartrending. The whole story of Patrick Melrose is an epic for our time. I can’t wait – and yet I so desperately want to wait – for the final chapter.