Patrick lay awake. His heart was pounding. He knew it was his mother, but she had come too late. He would not call to her again. When he had been waiting on the stairs and the door opened, he stayed to see if it was his mother, and he hid in case it was his father. But it was only that woman who had lied to him. Everybody used his name but they did not know who he was.
From 1992 – 2012, British writer, Edward St Aubyn wrote the Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk (a Man Booker finalist), and At Last: a five book collection that tells the story of Patrick Melrose from early childhood to middle-age. The first novel, Never Mind takes place in Provence where 5-year old Patrick lives with his wealthy American mother, Eleanor and sadistic British father, David Melrose.
The story unfolds over a day and evening at the family’s château in Lacoste, France. The nanny has recently died and 5-year old Patrick is left to his own devices while his parents prepare for a dinner party that evening. Two couples are expected for dinner: Victor Eisen, a 57-year old socially inept but well-respected philosopher and his live-in girlfriend, Anne Moore, an American journalist who doesn’t quite see the appeal of British aristocracy; and Nicholas Pratt, a thrice divorced 43-year old Brit with grand social aspirations and his 20-year old girlfriend of the moment, Bridget Watson-Scott, whose taste runs to purple miniskirts, black suede cowboy jackets with tassels and matching cowboy boots. Three couples representing six colorful characters and one child in a French château make for one terrifying drama in this 197-page novel.
At the heart of the story is David Melrose: a cruel and pathetic aristocrat whose social weakness was poverty until he forms an alliance with Eleanor. With an uncanny ability to focus on a person’s vulnerability, David’s tool of choice is unkindness which only pushes Eleanor to seek solace in alcohol and drugs. A woman who readily writes a cheque to the “Save the Children Fund” yet is incapable of protecting her son from the abuse handed out by Patrick’s father, Eleanor fails to see the irony in her ability to save other children but not her own.
But, Eleanor is not the only one in David’s line of fire. In one poignant scene, Anne returns a copy of The Twelve Jurors to David, asking him about the character, Caligula – an insane tyrant known for his extravagance, sadism, cruelty and sexual perversity – and why he was so cruel to his wife. David, clever enough to see through the question grins and replies “presumably he was suspicious of affection which was divorced from the threat of death.” And, so goes the follies of the British upper class as told by an author familiar with British society.
St Aubyn takes the reader through the day of each character leading up to the big event: dinner at the large French country house where everyone is fair game. Exposing the upper crust life of the Brits with their class conscious ways and snobbish disdain for anything non-British, the author meticulously shows to what lengths people will go for social acceptance. Uncomfortable, brutal and vicious at times, the story reveals the ugly side of a culture where the narcissistic characters are too focused on appearances and lack any sense of altruism.