Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review: Some Hope

Edward St. Aubyn. Some Hope: A Trilogy. New York: Open City Books, 2003. (British author reading challenge).

For this challenge, I read the first three novels in St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose cycle, bound together in one volume for American release in 2003. They are "Never Mind," "Bad News" and "Some Hope." (A fourth novel, "Mother's Milk," is part of a recently published volume with the first three, and a fifth, "At Last," was published in 2012.) St. Aubyn's glistening prose style expertly juxtaposes with the many betrayals and horrible bodily acts (particularly in the first and second books) that his characters undertake or undergo. 

The first novel takes place sometime in the 1960s, when Patrick is 5. His father, an older, idle man, is something of a narcissistic tyrant, and his mother is a subservient alcoholic. On the eve of a visit by friends to their house in the south of France, we wedge ourselves inside the heads of several characters, all of whom are somehow beholden to or spoiled by money -- except for innocent Patrick, who is the most vulnerable to his father. In the second novel, which focuses almost exclusively on Patrick, we find him in his early 20s headed to New York to pick up his father's ashes. Patrick has become a rich, self-loathing drug addict, and St. Aubyn refuses to spare the reader the horrifying intricacies of getting high in Manhattan -- in prose that is alternately hilarious and horrifying. (I'm particularly squeamish, but I managed to persevere through these scenes without gagging.) Finally, in "Some Hope" (perhaps the most scatter shot of the three), Patrick, now nearly 30 and clean, heads to a birthday party in a stately home of England. The party is attended by a large number of snobs, particularly Princess Margaret (whom St. Aubyn devastatingly portrays as a royal terror). Here St. Aubyn skewers the rich upper-class English; as one character points out, they're the only people who still believe in Marx's class war. 

Of course, it's not hard to feel sympathy for an imaginative, victimized 5-year-old, but St. Aubyn's real triumph is to have us feel sympathy for the adult, damaged, rich Patrick. He does it through his luminous descriptions of Patrick's mental state and depictions of gentry, officials and hangers-on who are much more despicable than Patrick. He also has a knack for describing such absurd scenes as a wild-West park in France, a drug score in the Bronx or an elegant dinner spoiled by the French ambassador's faux-pas in front of the princess. One ends up wanting to meet Patrick, but of course, he probably never would want to meet me. 

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