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Mother's Milk

A Novel by Edward St. Aubyn

Open City Books, November 2005

ISBN: 1890447404

Hardcover: 240pp; $23

Edward St. Aubyn’s smart, funny novel reveals the complexities of inheritance, both material and psychological, through the eyes of the Melrose family. Patrick and Mary want to be better parents than their own neglectful mothers, but Mary lavishes so much attention on her two sons that she has no energy left for her husband. Patrick wants to offer his children “unhaunted love” and has escaped what he calls “Zone One, where a parent was doomed to make his child experience what he had hated most about his life,” but can’t seem to make it out of “Zone Two,” a reactive realm in which “giving was based on what the giver lacked. Nothing was more exhausting than this deficiency-driven, overcompensating zeal.” He believes there must be a Zone Three but has no idea how to get there. Patrick’s mother Eleanor, unable to see the cruelty in asking her son to disinherit himself, enlists him in drawing up the papers that will give the family’s beloved summer home away to a New Age foundation. Precocious five-year old Robert is fascinated by the problem of other minds—he believes that while the adults around him speculate endlessly about what goes on in his new brother Thomas’s head, he himself can still remember his own babyhood: “the ache of his toothless gums, the involuntary twitching of his limbs…objects without names and names without objects pelting down on him all day long…” Though he, too, resents Eleanor for giving the vacation home away, he also empathizes with her, feeling it unfair that she had to be “who she was. In the end it was unfair on everyone being who they were because they couldn’t be anyone else.”

St. Aubyn does a brilliant job of showing the reader who these characters are and how they can’t be anyone else. Their dialogue crackles with wit even in mundane situations. At a children’s birthday party, for instance, baby Eliot steals a toy rabbit from baby Thomas and Eliot’s mother comes over to apologize to Patrick and Mary:

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “Eliot is so competitive, just like his dad. I hate to repress all that drive and energy.”

“You’re relying on the penal system for that,” said Patrick.

St. Aubyn gives his characters richly textured psychologies and makes their experiences immediate and vivid, setting their conflicting and overlapping desires loose on the page and creating a novel that is not only beautiful, but also unusually satisfying.

—Danielle LaVaque-Manty