Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk

All children, except one, grow up. Or do they? A century after J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan first made his appearance amongst us, English author Edward St. Aubyn is asking the question – do we ever really grow up? And more, do we need to?

St. Aubyn’s new novel, Mother’s Milk is a delightful exploration of the dividing line between childhood and adulthood, whose central conceit is that the adults among us regularly behave in ways that can only be called childish, while our children frequently astound us by the grown-up nature of their actions. Do we ever really outgrow our parents?, St Aubyn asks. Or do the roles and relationships of our childhood – our insecurities, our frustrations, constantly return to haunt us? Are we condemned, as grown-ups, to either repeat the mistakes of our parents, or overcompensate for them? And what does it mean to be a grown up anyway? Do any of us truly see ourselves as adults? Or are we simply children who have learnt to hide our insecurities, our bad behaviour, under masks of false confidence, politeness and conceit. Are we living in a world of overgrown children?

Mother’s Milk is the story of the Melrose family – Patrick and Mary and their sons Robert and Thomas[1]. The novel opens with Robert’s birth – as described by Robert himself. This luminous description turns out to be a false memory, however, it’s actually Thomas who has been born, his arrival serving to remind Robert of forgotten images from his own infancy. Robert is remembering what it was like to be a baby by putting himself in Thomas’s place. This transference of perspective is a basic technique of the novel, with the narration shifting from Robert, from whose perspective we see the first section, to Patrick and then to Mary. Each section of the book is separated by a year in time, corresponding to four consecutive summer vacations taken by the Melrose family. This gives the book a snapshot quality, with each section showing the reader how the characters and the story have progressed in the meantime.

The plot of the novel centres around the decision of Robert’s grandmother (Patrick’s mother) to disinherit her own family, and give away her old house in the South of France to a charity run by an insincere and conniving young faith-healer. This disinheritance is a major blow to the family, and combined with Mary’s complete sexual and emotional abandonment of him in order to take care of Thomas, it drives Patrick to a mid-life crisis. Frustrated by his own inadequacy, Patrick turns to adultery, then to drink, and a cloud of despair settles over the Melrose family, which is yet to disperse when the book ends.

What makes Mother’s Milk a brilliant read is that all this melancholy action unfolds in prose that is as crisp as it is funny. The Melrose family fortunes may be under a cloud, but this account of them is pure silver lining from start to finish. It’s like reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, except in the words of Evelyn Waugh. You can almost hear the wit crackling off the page. St. Aubyn has a sense of humour that is as dry and refreshing as a finely chilled chardonnay, and he combines this with a splendid precision of observation, a talent for irony and a penchant for repartee. The result is a book that manages to deal with the most serious subjects imaginable – death, alcoholism, adultery, parental neglect – and yet be deliciously, light-heartedly funny.

At the heart of this achievement is the character of Patrick. A successful lawyer, a caring father, a loving husband and a conscientious son, Patrick’s difficulty is that he is consumed by a sense of his own inadequacy. Early on we are told that:

“he waited in vain for the maturing effects of parenthood. Being surrounded by children only brought him closer to his own childishness. He felt like a man who dreaded leaving harbor, knowing that under the deck of his impressive yacht there is only a dirty little twin-stroke engine: fearing and wanting, fearing and wanting”

This disconnect between his surface success and his inner feelings of not being good enough leave Patrick in a perpetual state of emotional vertigo. When circumstances conspire to reinforce his low self-esteem – his mother disinherits him, his wife is too busy with their child to pay him any attention – Patrick sees this as fulfillment of his own insecurity, and abandons himself to a free-fall of despair. Yet even as he does so, he is unable to shake the knowledge of himself as a figure more ridiculous than tragic. Patrick’s great gift is for disguising his insecurities and frustrations under a great deal of verbal cleverness[2]. In order not to have to deal with his issues, afraid perhaps of the magnitude of his emotion, or the lack of it, Patrick intellectualises everything, turning all his experiences into anecdotes for his own amusement, choosing to acknowledge his failures precisely to laugh at himself, rather than as a motive force for change. This makes him charming, but it also makes him his own worst enemy – in making himself more and more laughable, he pushes himself deeper into the quagmire of his own emasculation, while at the same time cutting himself off from the emotional connections that could help restore him to a sense of balance. This description of a kiss is classic Patrick:

“They were kissing. Get into it. Picture of himself getting into it. No, not the picture, the thing in itself. Whatever that was. Who was to say that authenticity lay in being oblivious to the reflective aspect of the mind? He was speculative. Why supress that in favor of what was, in the end, just a picture of authenticity, a cliche of into-it-ness?

Julia broke off the kiss.”

This is a man who is too clever, too self-conscious, for his own good.

He is also the best character in the book, perhaps because he is the one St Aubyn most relates to. It’s not just that Patrick gets the best lines, or that the section he narrates is the one marked by the most exuberant, the most vivid writing (it’s an awe-inspiring section – if the rest of the book had been as pyrotechnically brilliant as these 60 pages, this book would have been a shoe-in for the Booker). It’s also that in a fundamental way Patrick’s technique of coping with anxiety is St Aubyn’s own.

Because that is exactly what St Aubyn is doing here: he’s using wit and humour and a great deal of cleverness to cauterize the novel from the pain inherent in its plot.  And what’s more, he’s doing this self-consciously. All through the novel the characters know exactly what plagues them – Mary recognises that she’s overcompensating for the scant attention she received from her own mother by caring for her son to the exclusion of her husband, Patrick recognises that he’s having a mid-life crisis and trying to hide from it by drinking, and that this will end badly – and yet they still continue to indulge in these behaviours. These are not foolish people, they are people with an extraordinary amount of self-knowledge, and in displaying that self-knowledge to us, St Aubyn is becoming a participant in this consciousness. Speaking to his friend Johnny about his behaviour, Patrick says:

“I’m taking refuge in an allegorical realm where everything seems to represent a well-known syndrome or conflict. I remember complaining to my doctor about the side effects of the Ribavirin he prescribed for me. “Oh, yes, that’s known,” he said with a kind of tremendous, infectious calm. Mind you, when I told him about a side effect that wasn’t known, he dismissed it by saying, ‘I’ve never heard of that before’. I think I’m trying to be like him, to immunize myself against experience by concentrating on phenomena. I keep thinking, ‘That’s known’, when in fact I feel the opposite, that it’s alien and menacing and out of control”.

You can’t find a better description of what St. Aubyn is doing with this book. The genius of it is that he’s doing it exceedingly well.
For all the petulant behaviour that Patrick’s desperate need to be reassured drives him to – his drinking, his fights with his relatives, his affair with an old flame – he is hardly the only person in this novel to behave childishly. In fact, this is a novel where almost everyone, whether young or old, craves attention and actively seeks it through his or her actions, from the three year old Thomas to his dying grandmother. Indeed, one of the chief delights of Mother’s Milk is the way the author skilfully draws out the parallels between the behaviour of children and that of their grown-ups, making the similarities between the two starkly clear. Even the actions of the United States in Iraq, seen through this lens, begin to look vaguely reminiscent of a schoolyard bully throwing his weight around. Ironically, the one person who probably craves the least attention is young Robert, who, on the contrary actively desires to be left alone:

“Robert’s daydream was solitude. How could he escape from the video cave? When you’re a child nobody leaves you alone. if he ran away now, they would send out a search party, round him up, and entertain him to death.”

It’s not that there aren’t flaws in this book. None of the characters has quite the flair of Patrick (except Robert, when he’s acting or thinking like his father) and some of the things that the children, Robert and Thomas say and do seem too precocious, too knowing – they strain credibility. More seriously, though, St. Aubyn isn’t quite able to sustain the jauntiness of his early chapters – as the book progresses, it seems to sink under its own gravity, not quite able to soar above the morass of conflict and suffering it creates for itself. This may be deliberate (it probably is) but it makes the second half of the book a much less satisfying read.

That said, this is, overall, a joyous and delectable book, one of the smartest reads of the season – a book that is gay and guilty and at the same time deeply emotional. J.M. Barrie, I think, would have approved.

Notes: 

[1] I have to admit that this is the first St. Aubyn book I’ve ever read. I’m told that the Melrose family have featured elsewhere in his work as well. I intend to find out for myself shortly.

[2] You see why I like him so much.

[Part of the Booker Mela 2006]

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