Written by on September 13, 2007

The Emperor’s Children

I recently finished The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud.

The plot and characters: The story takes place on both sides of 9/11, in New York City, though it’s less a 9/11 novel than a story about people of a certain age and class. The characters include the Thwaite family: father Murray, a journalist and intellectual who made his name during the 60s; his 30ish daughter Marina, struggling to write the book for which she’s already received (and spent) an advance; and her cousin Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, college dropout and agoraphobic. Marina and Bootie are both in Murray’s thrall — Marina as a kind of Daddy’s Girl Friday, and Bootie as a would-be intellectual-in-training, a poor relation with his nose pressed against the window of Murray’s study. Also central to the story are two college friends of Marina’s, Danielle Minkoff, a documentary producer, and Julius Clarke, a sometimes critic for the Village Voice who supports himself by temping in offices, wearing his one good suit. The three college friends all suffer from varying degrees of entitlement: they feel they’re above taking mundane work, but aren’t brilliant enough to take the world by storm either.

Messud captures the self-absorption of these people while managing to have some sympathy for them. In interviews (here‘s one with novelist Michelle Huneven from the LA Weekly), she says she used to envy people like them, but has since realized that the privilege they’re born with can also be a burden. The plot propels the reader along, the characters are well-drawn, and a film version is in development.

The consensus: Metacritic.com gives the book a score of 85, or “universal acclaim.”

Pithy quote

“Once Marina had gone, Murray Thwaite sat again before his open folder. He took a clean sheet of paper and wrote at the top: “Chapter Ten: Counseling an Adult Daughter.” He crossed that out, wrote “Conversations with an Adult Daughter”; and then, “A Grown Child Ponders How to Live.” At the last he settled upon “Talking to a Grown Child,” which words sat in the middle of the page in black ink, in his long, narrow capital letters. He smoked several cigarettes while looking at this phrase, and emptied the tumbler of scotch that rested on his blotter, its sweat sunk into the green paper in a solemn little ring. Eventually, he put this sheet of paper on top of the manuscript pile and returned them all to the folder, and to the drawer, which he locked carefully. She had — this was, of course, what one’s children did — ruined his stride, spoiled his momentum.”

This just in: Ron Howard will direct and Brian Grazer will produce the film version.

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