The Short Version: Patrick Melrose, now middle-aged and sober and divorced, adds one more descriptor to his list: orphan. This novel takes place on the day of his mother’s funeral – and Patrick takes the day to reflect on, well, just about everything that’s happened to him and the people who’ve been around for it all. At last, he is terribly free.
The Review: I once read a review of Sting’s Brand New Day album that described him as “comfortably ending the century on a fox-hunting metaphor.” That evocative line has stuck with me, that sense of “comfortably” ending something momentous on a completely fitting note. I’ve never had occasion to use it, though, until now: St. Aubyn has ended his masterpiece comfortably, even though we leave Patrick before he actually achieves any sense of finality or contentment.
The novel, much like the others (excepting Mother’s Milk), takes place over the space of a day and, mirroring the events of Bad News, it involves the death of a parent. Eleanor has finally passed on, after years of dementia and long after having given the chateau to the New Age loonies. The remaining (surviving?) characters from the Melrose novels past all show up at the funeral, all with their own thoughts and opinions and emotions. Although it is Patrick’s novel, of course, it is also more of an ensemble than any of the novels that came before. The most entertaining scene, one that zips by as though the reader is on a merry-go-round, comes during the funeral – specifically centering on Annette’s rambling eulogy. St. Aubyn sets the text spinning through the minds of the assembled cast, giving them each a paragraph’s space at a time. We hear Nicholas’ irritation, Patrick’s mortification, Mary’s worry, Julia’s aloofness, Annette’s nervousness, etc etc. It’s another one of those virtuoso moments that seem to come so easily to Mr. St. Aubyn and have, clearly, for the twenty years it has taken him to complete the quintet.
There are an awful lot of questions, philosophically, that come out of this novel. Questions that folks like Erasmus, the windbag of a philosopher who’d had a brief affair with Mary, bandy about during their inner monologues… but also the questions that are more simplistic. When Patrick’s precocious young sons raise the important (albeit potentially irritating) questions of life, the universe, and everything… suddenly, a child’s questioning of the world no longer seems like a funny, lightly annoying joke but like something serious and meaningful. Patrick knows that he has failed, to some extent, as a proper father – but he also will be damned if he’s going to let his boys be as messed up as he and their mother. A moment near the end of the novel – literally just a moment – where Patrick overhears Mary tell off her mother (known as Kettle) is perhaps the greatest sign that things will be okay for our hero. They’ve split up, yes, but they’ve developed a perhaps even stronger bond because of it.
What’s most interesting is that there’s no final resolution here. The name of the novel itself leads one to the assumption that there will be closure here. And even Patrick seems to believe that, okay, now it’s going to happen! Now that I’m an orphan, I’ll be okay! And when he mentions this, someone makes a crack about there not being crowds of Olivier Twists cheering in the streets – and we see Patrick realize that it’s all a continuum of progress towards better, but that it’s also an asymptotic curve. Better is a place no one ever quite reaches, we just keep pushing on towards it. The death of his mother – and the discovery of a multi-million dollar trust that she’d never told him about that looks to be coming under his control – seems to show everything looking up for Mr. Melrose but it is his boys, Robert and Thomas, who will truly redeem him.
It’s all there in the writing, all of these intensely personal thoughts, but it feel as though it also gets… I don’t know, beamed into your subconscious too. There are certain things that come across from the reading of these novels as though your mind scanned a special QR code and the bonus features were downloaded directly into your brain. I know that’s a reductive statement, seeing as books are inherently better than any technology and having to scan a QR code would inherently lessen the very thing that makes a book special… but do you see what I mean? These books are so good that they exist beyond what’s written on the page – as though St. Aubyn has cracked the code as to exactly what needs to be written in order to then cue your mind to shade in the rest. That sounds like it should be something that most authors do, by nature, but it’s far rarer a feat than any of us would like to believe. As a result, it’s no small surprise that these novels are on just about everyone’s best-of lists this year. The feeling of reading these novels is quite akin to the feeling I had reading The Alexandria Quartet – a sensation of having experienced a truly transcendant literary event, one that goes beyond the ‘popular’ and touches some elemental collective consciousness and captures a little bit of it.
Rating: 5+ out of 5 / 6 out of 5 for the whole quintet. The novel is a perfectly paced, macabrely funny, philosophically searching, hopeful masterpiece that feels both like a logical extension and a separate coda to the series. The series itself is… well, it is a masterpiece of a whole ‘nother sort. It is, perhaps, the most incredible thing I have ever read – and I mean that. I cannot actually articulate the entirety of my feelings regarding this quintet because it so broadly encompasses life in general. I am not a son of British aristocracy, despite my occasional longing to be so – I’m not the farthest thing from it, but I write this from suburban Pennsylvania (hello, holidays) and that’s a pretty long stone’s throw. But where the one book that connected with me as though I was a cord plugged into a socket (A Visit From the Goon Squad) felt like it nailed exactly what I thought about music and life and New York, very specific things… this feels like something larger. Like it captures what it means to be the sort of human being I aspire to be (not saying I aspire to be Patrick – the drug use alone is a major “no thank you”). The fact that this quintet exists in the world is proof that man can create something transcendent. I would not recommend it to any/everyone – there are books like The Night Circus and Goon Squad for that. These books, much like The Alexandria Quartet for the young woman who recommended it to me, are special and won’t necessarily mean so much to a random reader. But they will capture the soul of the right person, the way they captured mine.