Let me start by saying that from the moment I picked up the book for the first time, this story has taken over my life. I haven’t fallen into a book (or series of books) that I literally couldn’t put down in a long time.
I think I first found out about Patrick Melrose when the press junket for the new Avengers movie smashed into the beginning of the press tour for the television series based on Edward St Aubyn’s novels. An article popped up in my news feed, and after reading it, I was intrigued. I love a story that charts a personal journey of change for the main character, and when I read that it was based on the life of the author, I was even more interested. Writing as catharsis hits very close to home for me, so I set out to find the Patrick Melrose books in the hopes of reading them before the series aired.
It took me a couple of trips, but I was successful, and as I said, from the moment I started to read it, I was hooked. Patrick is a very vivid and visceral character. He’s not a hero sort, and the author makes no attempts to portray him as such. From his beginnings as an angry, aggressive child to his years as a desperate heroin addict right through to the becoming a disappointed middle-aged lawyer, Patrick is a thoroughly flawed individual. He’s a narcissist, a misogynist, a snob, and generally a bit of an asshole all around.
These books chronicle his journey from an abused child to a suicidal adult battling various addictions to finally finding some manner of peace within himself. In reading his story, I found myself charmed by Patrick despite his faults. Through each book I was rooting for him even when things seemed to just keep going from bad to worse, often by his own hand. There is a thread of dark comedy to these stories that I think help to carry the reader through in the same way that Patrick uses irony and sarcastic commentary to keep his head just barely above water. It would all just be too much without it.
As it was, I still needed several hours after each book to digest the full weight of the story. Each book in the series, like each episode in the television adaptation, focuses on a different time in Patrick’s life.
Never Mind follows the day that Patrick was first abused by his father when he was five years old. Bad News takes us to Patrick’s early 20s in New York collecting the ashes of his deceased father. Some Hope shows us a newly sober Patrick trying to put his life back together. Mother’s Milk, which I think was my favourite, is told both from the point of view of Patrick’s sons as well as from Patrick himself. This book focuses on three years worth of summers at his mother’s house in the South of France where it all began. And At Last is set at his mother’s funeral where Patrick begins to finally digest and unpack the emotions and truths regarding his turbulent relationship with his mother, his resulting relationships with women, and finally what it means to move into a life that isn’t defined by his past.
I did manage to read the first three books in the series before the first episode of the television adaptation aired. And I think I am happy for that. It is notoriously hard to fully adapt a story to the screen and still keep the core of what makes the book itself special. And I was a bit concerned considering how much of the stories take place inside Patrick’s head.
I have to say that I was surprised and impressed with how well they managed to bring it all to life. The pacing, the cinematography, the voice overs, the performances by all the actors, but particularly of Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugo Weaving, and Sebastian Maltz, all bind together to drag you down the rabbit hole of Patrick’s life story.
The condensing of characters and scenes within the adaptation helps to give more coherence to a plot that can’t take the time to familiarize the audience with the myriad of characters who float through Patrick’s life over the four decades that we get to know him. I think that this helps the television series to stand on its own.
That said, if you have the opportunity to read the books, definitely take it. Despite how it may look from the outside, this is definitely not your ‘rich boy has an existential crisis’ sort of story. While there is a sense of indictment of the class system in Britain, I think that it also makes the reader take a long hard look at their own lives and the attitudes we carry with us from our earliest childhood. I know that it did that for me. And while I haven’t suffered anywhere near the sort of trauma that Patrick/St Aubyn did, I can see parallel attitudes in the people I grew up around — social and family obligations, the dismissive view of children and their experiences, the secrecy of familial abuse that leads to self-medication rather than seeking help from outside sources, the petulance of those who never seem to grow up no matter how old they get, and the desperate desire to be free of it all.
I had intended to wait until all five episodes had aired before I wrote and published this post, but having seen the first four, I have a hard time believing that I could be disappointed at this point. It’s an immersive experience on the whole, and the writer/book nerd in me was delighted to spot Edward St Aubyn in the background of the party scene in Some Hope.
From here I am back to my beloved mysteries, starting with Agatha Christie’s Man in the Brown Suit.