Week #9: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Published in 2006, The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud won the praise of the New York Times Book Review (Best Book of the Year in 2006). I admired the novel but didn’t quite agree with the encomiums found on its covers. Messud’s prose was flowery and detailed and I had to keep a dictionary nearby to keep up with her vocabulary. In spite of its nearly 500-page length, I flew through the novel’s short chapters about each character. I wanted to like or identify with the characters but they repelled me as I dove deeper into the story.
Let’s set the scene: Manhattan, spring of 2001, three thirty-somethings. Ten years after their graduation from the elite Brown University, Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke find themselves floundering. Danielle produces documentaries and has enjoyed the most professional success of her friends, yet she feels forced to pursue silly topics in lieu of the more significant issues she prefers. Because of her Midwestern roots, Danielle may be the most sensible of the trio. Marina finds herself living at home in her parent’s ritzy Manhattan apartment after a break-up. After five years of procrastination and no money left from her advance, Marina still hasn’t managed to complete her first book, choosing instead to act as her pundit father’s amanuensis. Julius, both half-Vietnamese and gay and hailing from Michigan, struggles to make ends meet as a freelance critic. When he begins work at a temp agency to pay rent for his shabby apartment, he hides his new job from his wealthier friends in embarrassment. Messud quickly cycles between these three actors, and her omniscient narrator tracks their intersection with three other important characters: Marina’s father Murray Thwaite, Murray’s nephew and devotee Frederick ‘Bootie’ Tubb, and the attractive Australian Ludovic Seeley.
The Emperor’s Children seemed to me an overly harsh depiction of privileged young adults. Although I enjoyed the plot and the pacing, I found myself disliking every character. This may have been Messud’s intention, to comment on the young elite, but I like to cling to at least one likeable or sympathetic character. Young, snobby, overeducated, immoral, and above all else, entitled, these three battle for the title of most despicable. Danielle, usually the moral center of the novel, enters into an affair with her best friend’s father. When Julius finally finds the Pierre to his Natasha he knows he should be satisfied, but instead he finds himself cheating with strangers. Marina’s lack of empathy is eclipsed only by her blind devotion to her father. Murray’s hypocrisy and Ludovic’s sliminess ooze off the page. Bootie may be the least despicable character in the story, but he bites the hand that feeds when he writes a scathing expose about his uncle. Even Marina’s saintly mother Annabel shows weakness when she refuses to acknowledge her husband’s not-so-secret affair.
The way that Messud plops September 11th at the end seems sloppy compared to the rest of the novel. Far from the focus of the novel, the tragic event seemed to be the convenient deus ex machina to tie up the plot. I can forgive her for this device because of how successful the rest of her plot was. Despite my tough review, I would definitely read Claire Messud again.