No 417 The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

Claire Messud’s gracefully written novel The Emperor’s Children, is incredibly readable and entertaining but on a formidable scale.

Set for the most part in New York City in 2000, it focuses on the social and personal lives of a group of young affluent New York professionals as they navigate a series of personal and political upheavals in their hitherto cushioned lives.

The novel interweaves the stories of Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite and Julius Clarke, who became friends at Brown University and graduated ten years previously. Now in their early thirties, the trio are coming to terms with the fact that the expectations they each had for their lives are not coming to fruition.

Danielle, the most pragmatic of the three, works as a producer of television documentaries, but her insightful ideas rarely make it into production and she is left working on a show about botched liposuction. Julius, a gay half-Vietnamese freelance critic is temping in dull admin position to make ends meet, and is becoming aware that “from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few short steps”.

Marina, the most privileged of the group, is the beautiful daughter of a legendary journalist and writer, Murray Thwaite, the eponymous “emperor” of the title and she is struggling to finish a long-overdue book about the cultural importance of children’s fashion, about which she no longer cares. Marina, and to some extent, her two friends are stymied by Murray, a liberal media spokesperson whose work and personality cast a long shadow from which the next generation struggle to come out from under.

Murray is facing his own challenges, unable to finish what he considers to be his own masterwork which has lain untouched for years. All their lives will be upended by the introduction of several characters, who will destabilise the status quo. The first is Ludovic Seeley, and intellectual Australian magazine editor who presents himself as a revolutionary, although it is never clear what he takes revolution to mean. He seems particularly interested in Murray and then becomes romantically involved with Marina.

David is a preppy businessman who falls in love with Julius and seems at first to provide emotional, and more importantly, financial stability. Finally, there is Frederick ‘Bootie’ Tubb, Murray Thwaite’s nephew, who has fled to New York from his home in the sticks, ready to live a life of intellectual rigour and idolise at the throne of his beloved uncle, only to find that no one in New York is quite what they seem.

Anyone who said they just woke up and found themselves in the place they’d always wanted to be was lying; and anyone who believed such a person was a fool. It was all a matter of will.

This dichotomy between reality and appearance is at the heart of The Emperor’s Children and Bootie, Ludociv and David fundamentally change how this group think about themselves. But the real destabilising factor in this expansive comedy of manners isn’t the changes that these outside characters bring, but wider political instability in the form of 9/11.

I don’t want to give too much away about this, safe to say that this element of the novel is handled in a subtle and organic way.

Up to this point, the characters have thought of themselves as living in ‘criminally uninteresting times’, but when they find themselves in the middle of history, their pretentions are torn away.

Is it right, do you think, what everyone’s saying – all those people, on TV – that nothing will be the same again?’

Not everything in The Emperor’s Children worked for me. Some plot strands take time to be established and then seem to drift away forgotten. Bootie submits an article skewering his uncle to Ludovic’s magazine but we never find out if it gets published. Ludovic’s initial mysterious interest in the Thwaite family is never developed once his relationship with Marina is established. Older, less wealthy women, in particular Bootie and Danielle’s mothers, are presented in an often clichéd and sometimes cruel manner.

These quibbles aside, Messud is a skilled prose stylist and has created a masterly portrait of a particular time in a particular city, featuring a range of wonderful and unforgettable  characters.


The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

10 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I particularly enjoyed your review, as this one’s been on my own TBR forever & ever & ever. The fact that I’ve avoided it is a bit odd, as I’m very fond of Claire Messud’s writing. As you observe about Emperor’s Children, not everything in her novels always works, but (again, as you observe) she’s a skilled stylist with a knack for creating a distinct universe. I’ve actually read almost all of her novels, even the early ones; my favorite so far is “The Woman Upstairs.” I think I’ve avoided Emperor’s Children because I just didn’t feel like reading about the problems of some privileged characters; your review has made me re-think this!
    Your review has inspired to me to add to my Messud TBR, with The Hunters (two novellas) and her essay collection, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write! Bad, bad Cathy746!!! (LOL)


  2. I read this several years ago and remember enjoying it but struggling with it in parts. I think your review nails a lot of that! I was probably in my early 20s when I read it so now I’m wondering what it would be like to re-read it now that I’m older than the characters!


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