I think of Edward St. Aubyn as a guilty pleasure, but they are wonderful novels, and I feel guilty only because they make me laugh so much.
Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last (272 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $25) follows up with characters from his Patrick Melrose trilogy. I imagine that if you haven’t read those novels, some of the details of this one might confuse you. At the same time, though, you can catch on fairly quickly to the identities and relationships being described. This novel is such a delight that you might find your way into the trilogy by starting with this epilogue.
Patrick’s mother has died, and the action of this novel takes place during the one day of the funeral. To be even more precise: at least half the novel takes place at the funeral itself. Of course, characters flash back into their lurid pasts, and long held animosities are given the space to emerge naturally. Wicked characters we may remember form earlier novels are even more wicked, and perhaps a little demented, here; but old friends are still friendly; and family represents everything that is best and worst about the ways in which people can be loving and/or tormenting to each other.
For Patrick, a bundle of self-defeating neurosis, this is a chance to assess his relations with each of his parents. His Dad has been dead for some time, but the occasion of his mother’s funeral is the chance for him to delve into his past. And he does that with a vengeance, remembering horrifying scenes from his earliest childhood, some of which, like his at-home circumcision, may have been related to him by the mother he is mourning.
Patrick’s ex-wife and his ex-mistress are both there, exuding long-standing and perhaps understandable hatred for each other. His wife’s ex-lover, a loopy philosopher is there too, as are various friends and hangers-on, aunts, and even some old, old friends of his mother's.
In the last novel of the trilogy, a much loved French Riviera home had been left by his mother to a new age religious group, and when this novel opens Patrick is still brooding over this loss and blaming his mother’s dementia. The woman from this group has been asked to speak at the funeral—Patrick’s ex-wife Mary had to make the arrangements when Patrick couldn’t cope—and her much-interrupted funeral oration is a masterpiece of comically ironic prose. This character does not mean to be funny, but I defy you to read her touching account of a well-lived life without laughing.
You will have to laugh too at other characters and at the amazing descriptive pirouettes that St. Aubyn pulls off here. The novelist has been widely praised as a stylist, and the style is just about everything here. It’s the kind of prose you can sink into and marvel at from paragraph to paragraph. It’s almost addictive to read, and I imagine that it is addictive to write too. That gives me hope that there might be even more volumes of Patrick Melrose to follow. After all, two of the most amazingly charming and astonishing characters in this novel were Patrick’s two little boys.
Edward St. Aubyn
At Last is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.