Claire Messud

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"The Emperor's Children"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 30, 2006)

"It seems as though entitlement, that mysterious gift, explains everything everyone does these days.  And I'd like to know why I got skipped over in the entitlement stakes.  Is it a Midwestern thing?"

Murray Thwaite, a child of the sixties, has become, by 2001, a respected social critic and sought-after social commentator and writer.  With a broad vision of how the world can be improved and an audience which listens to him, he has achieved success, apparently  without losing his idealism.  With his wife Annabel, a family lawyer for a non-profit social service agency, he lives the good life, guilt-free, on Central Park West. 

The younger generation of thirty-somethings with whom his daughter Marina associates, however, have not had their mettle tested, have had no rallying point like the Vietnam War to unite them in a common cause and help them to develop real values.  Rootless and generally uncommitted, now that they have been out of college for ten years, they float through life, expecting success but not hungry enough to be motivated toward the larger goals which have inspired Murray Thwaite.

Marina Thwaite has separated from the lover who supported her for five years, and she has moved back with her parents, where she is not trying very hard to finish a book for which she has already received a substantial advance.  The book, entitled The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes, examines how children's fashions reflect "complex and profound cultural truths."  Her best friend, Danielle Minsky, who graduated from Brown with her, is a researcher for television, interested in "revolution" and the role of the satirical press in shaping opinion—"people who aren't for anything, just against everything."   Julius Clarke, the third of the college friends, once wrote "devastating but elegant book reviews" for the Village Voice but is now unemployed and working as a temp while living with his gay lover.

When Ludovic Seeley, a devastatingly handsome Aussie, arrives in New York to start a "revolutionary" new magazine, the comfortable worlds of all the characters change dramatically.  Seeley, who identifies with Napoleon, has big goals--"unmasking these hacks for what they are…trumpet[ing] that the emperor has no clothes, and the grand vizier has no clothes, and the empress is starkers, too…Debunk the lot of them…these hereditary asses."  Soon Marina Thwaite is working for him, doubting her father's commitment and honesty, and falling in love with this "devil incarnate."   At the same time, Marina's twenty-three-year-old cousin Bootie Tubb runs away from rural  Watertown, New York, moves in with Murray and Annabel, and eventually working as Murray's "amanuensis," and further threatening Murray's reputation.  Bootie, too, wants to write an article for Ludovic Seeley, revealing in public the most private of Murray's thoughts.

Writing almost as a playwright, Messud set scenes with exacting detail, using the specifics of furnishings and the descriptions of people's living spaces to provide insights into their characters and daily lives.  Their lives are often superficial, and the stress on their "things," instead of on their values is revealing.  Similar attention is given to the small moments in their lives, their interactions and conversations, and their interdependence on each other.  As the action moves from March, 2001, to November 2001, we come to see the profound differences between the generations, the prolonged adolescence of the thirty-ish characters, and their need for role models.  With Bootie, who is ten years younger, we see a person who knows that he MUST take action, and though he is misguided in his intentions, perhaps, he is, in his way, as dedicated to change as Murray Thwaite was in the 1960s.

The self-centered, often hedonistic, lives of the characters change profoundly with 9/11.  Danielle, looking out the window of her apartment that morning, "had seen the second plane, like a gleaming arrow, and the burst of it, oddly beautiful against the blue, and the smoke, everywhere…and she had seen the buildings crumble to dust; she could smell them even inside, even with the windows sealed…In light of these things she did not matter…Now there was nothing but sorrow and this was how it was going to be, now, always." 

As Messud continues her narrative of these characters through November, 2001, she shows which ones will make it in the world as it has become.  Like the rest of us, some have unexpected emotional resources and values which enable them to continue, effectively, however changed they may be personally.  Others are so deeply affected that they may have to reinvent themselves to survive.  Messud captures that transition between the "old world," pre 9/11, and the "new world" in which we all now live, offering a closeup view of the "emperor," "his children," their values, and their worlds, before and after.

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Emperor's Children at The Borzoi Reader

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About the Author:

Claire MessudClaire Messud was born in the United States to a Canadian mother and French father, she was raised in Connecticut as well as Toronto and Sydney, Australia.

Messud's first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her book of novellas, The Hunters, were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and an Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice. All three books were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. The Emperor's Children was on the 2006 Man Booker Award long list.

She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship, and is the current recipient of the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband (literary critic James Wood) and two young children. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014