Review: ‘The Emperor’s Children’

emperor's

The Emperor’s Children

By Claire Messud

  • Date finished: Jan. 17, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2006
  • Projects: n/a
  • Reading List: Winter 2013-14, 65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20’s
  • Grade: B
  • Thoughts upon reading:

The Emperor’s Children was one of “those” novels that I’ve seen around the bookstore and library over the years – I knew it was decently noteworthy, I knew Claire Messud is supposed to be a “big deal”. I picked up a copy for cheap at a library book sale awhile back, but it wasn’t until I saw the title on the 65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20’s list that I thought, “Eh, why not now?”

A blurb on the cover of the book from The New York Times Book Review calls The Emperor’s Children a “masterly comedy of manners”. I can…kinda…see this. The book tells the story of three just-turned-30-year-old friends living in New York City in 2001. Marina is the privileged and beautiful daughter of a famous journalist, drifting along with no job, living with her parents and falling back on the promise of a years-old book deal about the children’s fashion industry. Julius is the gay one with a colorful history as a review writer, now trying to figure out his purpose as his hard-partying lifestyle begins to feel a bit old. And finally, Danielle is a workaholic documentary producer from Ohio who simultaneously acts as a moral center while also indulging in perhaps the worst sin possible – an affair with her best friend’s famous father.

I can see why this book may be considered “important”. It’s about three young people emerging from their fun and frivolous 20’s, and then completely freaking out when they realize how little they have – and how quickly it can all disappear. Not that this is a major spoiler, but the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11 represents a figurative breaking point for our trio. Afterwards, everyone is left to face their own mistakes, demons and scars, and it’s not really pretty. But then, they do go on and that, in itself, represents that there is hope for us after 29.

But on to things that annoyed me: how about Marina, Danielle and Julius? They really can be brats, and unfortunately, I found myself not caring much about their fates. Will Danielle’s affair be discovered? I didn’t really care. Will Marina ever realize that her husband is a jerk? Probably, but if she does, she deserves it. And geez Julius, stop it with the coke and abusive boyfriends.

And let’s talk about Bootie: I was never really sure how he fit into the narrative of The Emperor’s Children, other than representing the clear-sighted “truth-teller” who is seeking a pure life of the mind when he runs away to New York City. It seems fitting that after being rebuffed at every turn, that his former self “disappears” into the dust of the World Trade Center. I can see what Messud is doing here: Marina, Danielle and Julius are their generation – their self-centered worldview included – whereas Bootie represents the intellectual optimism that has no place in this “mecca of the mind”. I can see the metaphor. Unfortunately, the person of Bootie never made sense to me, and his abrasive personality just got on my nerves.

All in all, not a bad read. It just didn’t touch me like it was supposed to. It certainly didn’t make me laugh like any proper comedy; if anything, it just depressed me. Messud’s writing is skillful but overbearing at times, turning some passages into a mire to be slogged through. But the narrative was smart, and there were plenty of “great thoughts” in there. Worth it if you’re willing.

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