Review – The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

The first thing I feel like I should tell you about The Emperor’s Children is that I almost stopped listening to it because there is not a single character in this book that I understood or liked.  They all made horrible decisions and did horrible things to each other and were generally self important ass-holes.  Excuse my French.  But then, after a good five or six hours of listening, I started to be really interested in their stupidity.  It was like watching a reality show and being sucked in, even though you keep saying to yourself, “I’m better than this!”

All of that is not to say that The Emperor’s Children is poorly written.  If anything, it’s a little over-written, but the characters, though unbelievably frustrating, are also really believable.  The novel follows several New Yorkers, all in their early thirties, in the year before September 11, 2001.  Marina Thwaite, daughter of the famous journalist Murray Thwaite, Danielle Minkoff, a documentary producer, and Julius Clarke, a freelance critic, have been friends since they were students at Brown University and have little to show for their post-college years.  Marina has been working on a book about children’s clothes (hence the title of the novel) for the past ten years.  Danielle is moderately successful, but rarely gets to make documentaries about what she wants and Julius is just barely staying a float, often taking temp jobs to supplement his income.

Then in the summer of 2001, Ludovic Seeley and Frederick “Bootie” Tubb (Murray’s nephew) enter the picture and things are never really the same again.  Ludovic is a “revolutionary”, attempting to dismantle the hypocrisy of figureheads like Murray Thwaite, who falls in love with Marina.  Bootie moves to New York after quitting of college because of his disappointment in the system to work for his uncle and try to get an “in” to the elite society that his uncle dictates.

These characters are wheeling toward September 11, with no knowledge as to how their lives are going to change in the  coming weeks.  They are dismantling their own lives, rushing into marriages, entering abusive and adulterous relationships.  They hurt each other and themselves and are the physical embodiment of the hypocrisy they deny.  It’s amazing, really, how expertly these characters were created.  I had to constantly remind myself that these people were in their thirties, but that seemed like just the point.  They never grew up and were still children and not even September 11 changed that, though perhaps they were exposed for what they really were.

So do you have to like a character for a novel to be good?  I might have said yes before reading this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this novel.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Other reviews:

New York Times (The NYT book review is much more culturally aware than I am)
Ready When You Are, CB

Did you read and review The Emperor’s Children? Let me know in the comments section and I will link to your post here!

Note: This review was already published once, but there was an error with the page.

10 thoughts on “Review – The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

  1. I like Messud, but I did not like this book. I read it some time ago and was quite disappointed. It was one of those books that you feel had all the right ingredients but for some reason just doesn’t work.

    1. Thomas: I enjoyed it, but I know what you mean. I think I kept looking for that something at the beginning and then just decided to give in and enjoy the ride.

  2. Here is my post on Emperor’s Children:

    I never did write a regular review of this one. Nor did I solve the mystery that I discuss in the above post, although I was pretty worked up about it. But I definitely think that this book was a rip off of Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honorable Defeat.

    9/11 doesn’t quite fit right with my theory, but the way 9/11 feels jammed into the plot of Emperor’s Children, I think Messud might have stuck it in as an after thought.

    1. Rose City Reader: I think I was waiting for Sept 11 the whole time because the review I read of this (originally from CB James of Ready When You are CB) mentioned it, so I was paying close attention. I did like what it did (or more importantly didn’t do) to the characters, but I think a little bit less of the pre-9/11 and a little bit more of the post-9/11 would have made this book better.

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