This is my review of At Last by Edward St Aubyn.
If you have not read the previous novels in the Patrick Melrose series, in particular “Mother’s Milk”, embarking on this novel may feel like walking into a room full of mainly pretentious or snobbish strangers who talk across you about people and incidents you know nothing about.
The author tells you quite a bit about past events, but not enough to plug all the gaps.
Driven to drugs and drink in previous episodes, his marriage destroyed, the anti-hero Patrick’s neurosis is focused on the failings of his mother, Eleanor, like him to some extent the victim of a wealthy upper class but dysfunctional family background. Perhaps her greatest folly has been to insist on giving away her beautiful house in France and fortune to members of a spiritual, do-gooding cult who appear to be hypocritical rogues on the make. “At Last” begins with her cremation, a cue to bringing together previous characters in the series, and an opportunity to draw Patrick towards a sense of closure, perhaps a chance to draw a line and move on. Thus, “At Last” forms a suitable finale to the series.
In “At Last” you have to wade through too many highly condensed explanatory flashbacks to find any of the striking descriptions, sharp dialogues and amusing situations which carried me through “Mother’s Milk”. As with the latter, many characters are caricatures or rather two-dimensional, and the idea of a plot seems incidental. The opening monologue from the ghastly and unexplained upper-class bore Nicholas Pratt seems implausible during a cremation, a contrivance to recap on Patrick’s troubled family, and makes for an off-putting beginning. Then, the succession of digressive flashbacks about Patrick’s past addictions and relations with other characters, sit oddly in the middle of the ongoing scene of the funeral.
Overall, the structure seems too rambling. The many references to past events are likely to seem repetitive to those already familiar with them, but confusing and indigestible for newcomers. As a result of all this, the book is not as moving as it should be. It is as if St Aubyn has become addicted to the Melrose theme, and keeps dribbling it out, with a few details added, in successive books over several years, whereas perhaps from a literary viewpoint it would have been better digested and restructured into a different format.
So, I think you need to be a well-informed “Melrose addict” really to enjoy this book. Although St. Aubyn can prove a talented writer, “At Last” does not seem to be one of his best works.