The Emperor's Children


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A magnificent novel of fate and fortune--of love and friendship, family and secrets, of striving and glamour, disaster and promise--this is a tour de force that brings to life a city, a generation, and living in the moment.

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Apr 8, 2020

Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children"

Claire Messud's novel, "The Emperor's Children" (2006) is a challenging, if only partially successful, satire of modern urban secularism set in New York City in 2001. In part a comedy of manners and in part a novel of ideas, the book deals diffusely with the pretensions and difficulties of intellectual life.

I think there are two interrelated groups of central characters in the novel. The first group consists of two people: Murray Thwaite, an aging liberal writer and social critic whose opinions and publications have come to command a nation-wide following. Thwaite's wife is an attorney with a career and life of her own, as she specializes in representing troubled young people. Thwaite has a manuscript in his desk which he hopes to publish someday setting forth in aphoristic form the insights he believes he has won over the years into the good life. Thwaite is also a philanderer and becomes involved, in this book, with a 30 year old woman named Danielle, discussed below. Thwaite has a nephew, Frederick "Booty" Tubb who has dropped out of college and who reads writers including Emerson and Robert Musil. Thwaite hires Booty as a private secretary, and Booty betrays this trust by writing a highly uncomplimentary article based upon Thwaite's draft and unpublished manuscript and on his observations of Thwaite's private life.

The second group of main characters consists of three college friends who are about 30 years of age. Thwaite's daughter Mariana is an aspiring writer who has been struggling for several years to complete a book on children's clothing and its impact on society's view of people. Her friend Danielle is an aspiring producer of documentaries. Their common friend Julius is a free-lance writer who struggles to get by writing reviews. (shades of online reviewing!) Each of the three characters is unmarried as the story opens. Marina and Danielle become rivals for the attention of Ludovic Seely, an Australian who has moved to New York to found a satirical magazine critical of pretension. Seely marries Marina, in the hope of furthering his prospects, and Danielle becomes involved in an affair with Thwaite. Julius is gay and in the midst of what will prove to be an unhappy and destructive relationship.

The plotting in the book is awkward and the scenes of New York City life are not strikingly drawn. I understand the frustrations of many of my fellow online reviews who did not like this book. But I found the book provocative as a novel of ideas, and this in some measure redeemed it for me. The characters in the story each have their strengths and weaknesses, but they all tend to be self-centered. More importantly, they tend to be, even the successful Murray Thwaite, individuals suffering from a sense of uncertainty in finding a meaning in their lives. Messud writes about the respective situations of the characters without offering any easy answers in a way I found helpful.

In her look at the unfulfilling lives of her characters, Messud alludes many times to two factors I found striking. The first was the professed atheism or agnosticism of every character in the book which, Messud suggests, may have more than a little to do with their vacillating sense of life. But Messud offers a complex vision in which a return to religion is not a panacea. In one of the best moments of the novel, when Thwaite's wife has to interrupt a family holiday to help a young man who has been arrested, she declines to advise the troubled youth to turn to religion as a possible way to mitigate his troubles. Even if religion could be shown to help in such cases, she says, she is a nonbeliever herself, and would not feel she was acting properly in recommending a possible course of action in which she did not herself believe to a young person she was charged with helping. In the discussions of religion and secularism in the book, Messud explores an issue that remains troubling to many people.

The second factor that Messud explores with some subtlety involves gender issues. Messud makes a great deal of the liberal paterfamilias, Murray Twaite and his paternalism and philandering. But she has much more to offer than this somewhat tired critique. The young people in the book all show , at the age of 30, the greatest difficulty in establishing lasting heterosexual relationships. Julius is involved in a gay relationship and remarks at one point that the advantage of such arrangements is that the couple makes its own rules, free of what he claims to be the biases of society. His relationship unravels dramatically, but the point he tries to make about gay relationships seems to apply to all male-female relationships in a modernistic age: the couples make their own rules without standards to help or guide them. (The tie-in with secularism here is, I think, strong.) There is a feeling of sadness in this book that at the age of 30 both Danielle and Marina are floundering in the careers and have shown their inability to make a lasting sexual and loving connection for themselves.

I found a strong temptation in reading this book to see the author as suggesting a return to religion and to a sense of stable, nonfeminist gender expectations as part of a solution to the problems she develops in the book. (Most satire is fundamentally conservative.) But as she develops the character of "Booty" and to some extent the character of Murray Thwaite, I think she turns away from this conservative position. The book left me with the feeling, as she states in several places, that every person must make his or her own way in life. The lodestars are the authors to which Booty is devoted: Emerson, the prototypical American with his sense of the person creating himself anew and Musil, the modernist with his sense of ambiguity and of the difficulty of fixity. This is not a pretty or an easy way but, Messud to me suggests, it is all we have.

"The Emperor's Children" is not a pretty or an easy book. But in the issues it explores it is thoughtful. Readers who are interested in sharper satirical portraits of intellectual life in New York City might enjoy the novels of Dawn Powell, whose works are available in the Library of America series.

Robin Friedman


Jan 29, 2009


this book has nothing that inspired me... it was boring, tedious and the characters were poor. i didn't care for the characters and their lives...
i read this book because i had to.


May 8, 2008

Like its characters, a hollow thing of beauty

I wanted to read this book after I heard an interview with the author describing her process of writing this book. Apparently, she had come to a point with the characters and the story which she did not know how to get past. She, in fact, started to dislike all the characters and to find them deluded and filled with an inflated sense of their own importance. She was considering not finishing the novel at all. Then came September 11, 2001.

After the terrorist attacks, many people began to reevaluate their lives and work to find more meaning in them than ever before. The author wanted to give these characters that same opportunity for reflection and reinvention, so she wrote the real-life event into the book.

I have to say, while I found the book extremely ambitious and beautifully-written, I'd have liked it much more if the 9/11 interruption had come more in the middle of the book than at the end. Unfortunately, I found all of the characters shallow and unsympathetic, and the catharsis of the terrorist attack came too late for them to find redemption, in my opinion. I can certainly appreciate what Messud tried to do, but she didn't pull it off to my satisfaction.


Aug 29, 2007

Plenitude and Privilege

"Culture follows money," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. Claire Messud's novel, The Emperor's Children traces the intersecting lives of three friends who met as students at an Ivy League university, their relationships and careers as they negotiate the heady upper reaches of New York society, and the irrevocable changes wrought by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. They are altered as well by Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, Murray's nephew, who insinuates himself into their rarefied sphere, a college dropout and autodidact persuaded of his own genius. It is a novel of manners in the Wharton and James mode, but the title implies both privilege, royal lineage, and, after the adage, "The emperor has no clothes," an unmasking of illusions.

The novel opens at a posh party in Australia, where Danielle, a TV producer, meets Ludovic Seeley, a Rupert Murdoch-like media magnate, and closes on a note of ambiguity and equivocation as, I think, any post-9/11 novel should. The other two friends are Marina, aspiring writer-daughter of celebrated leftist journalist Murray Thwaite, a beauty perenially in his shadow, and Julius, a gay Eurasian freelance critic desperately on the make.

The author writes a knowing, incisive, satirical prose about the machinations and transgressions of her thirtysomething characters. She has much to say about hypocrisy, Machiavellian ambition, the linkage of desire and need, of lust and family. The climactic scenes of a city in chaos have a cinematic sweep to them.

In fact the novel's climax turns heavily on the events of 9/11, which for a moment "democratized" our city and nation, even the globe, in the electronic interconnectedness of tragedy. Thus, it's striking and somewhat disappointing to this reader, that Messud's novel doesn't have a more Dickensian scope in its depiction of that terrible day and its aftermath. With the exception of scenes set in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood and the plot strand of lawyer Annabel Thwaite's young black client, the socially marginal and the underclass are largely expunged from the book. Messud's representation of a money-driven celebrity culture in which surface appearance is all is surely accurate, but it's dismaying to see it nonetheless.

The novel also lacks the recognition of the disastrous consequences of class and social aspiration that one sees in Lily Bart's fall from grace in Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, and Henry James' profound sense of human evil (the terrorists in Messud's book are an unknowable abstraction).

In addition, because The Emperor's Children is a novel of manners, there has to be some correspondence to an actual social world. Does a real-life figure comparable to Murray Thwaite exist? Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT and ferocious critic of U.S. foreign policy, may come closest. Of course Thwaite is meant to be a figure of hypocrisy, so it's possible that the author is suggesting that mendacity isn't restricted to any ideology. But it could be argued that Seely, in his devious Napoleonic splendor and his megalomaniacal desire to set the social agenda, is a more ominous figure.

One last reservation: the characters lack any true sense of mortality (their own and others) as they approach their thirtieth year. They are insulated by their plenitude and privilege. Surely most Americans are not wholly ignorant of death by that age. Messud intends to prefigure the sobering effects of 9/11 upon them, but nevertheless their naivete astonishes me, and their preoccupation with the superficial disallows the main characters, even Danielle, arguably the most sympathetic of the three, from having much of an interior life.

"The Emperor's Children is a tour de force that brings to life a city, a generation," says the jacket description, "and the way we live in this moment. The following is from a August 29, 2007 New York Times editorial entitled "A Sobering Census Report: Americans' Meager Income Gains": "The median household income last year was still about $1,000 less than in 2000, before the onset of the last recession. In 2006, 36.5 million Americans were living in poverty--5 million more than six years before, when the poverty rate fell to 11.3 percent.

It seems a fair question to ask to whom the "we" refers in the novel's dust jacket.


Jul 26, 2007

Relationships & Adult Children

Well worth the time to read this. Makes for interesting character and contemporary culture analysis.

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