Edward St. Aubyn's quirky, scathing little novel touches on a resonant subject, which made for a surprisingly delightful and balanced read. The tale is narrated by three members of the Melrose family who are as a whole intellectual, self-centered and empty people. The narration bounces between characters with ease; from precocious 5-year old Robert who opens the book narrating the circumstances of his birth first hand in a bitter voice, to Patrick, the father of the family narrating his dissatisfaction with life resulting in substance abuse and infidelity, to Mary, the mother, and her preoccupation with mothering and spoiling her second son, to the detriment of all other relationships. They are a witty, sarcastic bunch who offer negative yet entertaining commentary on several subjects, including the wealthy and upper class, adherents of new age theories, and Americans (in general).
Alone, this style would become tiresome and unsustainable. But the book also offers commentary on the various ways in which families repeat the mistakes of their elders, or, in trying to avoid certain mistakes, swing the pendulum too far to the opposite side. Patrick is obsessed with his elderly mother's decision to leave her vacation home in the south of France to a New Age institution run by an Irish "shaman" upon her death rather than giving it to him. Mary is wounded by her mother's disinterest and uninvolvement in her childhood. Who knows what little Robert and Thomas will be attempting to recover from in the wake of their parents' choices. The power of parenting - and especially mothering - is explored in a wide variety of contexts.
This imperfect novel contains some absolutely delightful gems of description:
"His attention, which usually bounced from one thing to another was still...His mind was glazed over, like a pond drowsily repeating the pattern of the sky."
"They made their way back toward the stone table, trying not to smile too much or look too solemn. Patrick felt himself sliding back under the microscope of his family's attention"
"She went on decanting the poison of her resentment into him for the next two hours."
But the novel ends abruptly, and the witty and sarcastic voices do become a bit tiresome before it does.