In The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, Marina Thwaite is working on a book. She hopes it will make her reputation, make her a journalist/social critic like her father the successful Murray Thwaite. Murray has done very well for himself: a long prosperous career as a journalist, a successful marriage, a substantial apartment in a good neighborhood in New York City. Even his affairs are successful. In between the jobs that pay his bills, Murray works on a book of philosophy. He’s not sure it will ever be published, but he turns to it more and more now that he is approaching retirement age, reviewing what he has learned over the years.
Marina has been working on her book since she came up with the topic as an undergraduate. No one thinks she’ll finish it. Not her parents. Not her close friends Julius and Danielle. No one but her fiance, an Australian journalist who’s moved to New York to start a magazine that will expose the pretenses of American culture. He thinks Marina’s book, The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes, is a perfect fit for his magazine, hires Marina on as an editor and moves into the life of Murray Thwaite, a man he openly dismisses as a fraud to anyone who’ll listen.
The small circle of family and friends who populate The Emperor’s Children have been living a delusion. They believe that they are something they are not, that they are dressed in fabulous clothes that everyone would see if they’d just open their eyes. Murray is invited to receive honorary degrees and give commencement speeches, but what he has to say is largely regurgitated axioms, nothing new. Julius writes reviews for the Village Voice but lives in a crummy downtown apartment and goes through a series of bad relationships. Danielle is the least delusional of the bunch. She has a career in television journalism, but even there the meaningful stories she’d like to do are cut in favor of celebrity profiles.
Enter cousin Bootie, Murray’s nephew from Michigan. Bootie drops out of college to move in with his Uncle, the great Murray Thwaite. Bootie who worships Murray hopes to learn through working with a great mind only to find that his uncle is a fraud, a man who says things that he knows will please his audience instead of speaking truth. After he discovers his uncles book of philosophy, Bootie begins work on an expose about Murray. He’ll show the world that the emperor has not clothes.
While there is plenty of plot to go around in The Emperor’s Children, it’s beside the point as far as I’m concerned. The Emperor’s Children, like Ms. Messud’s first book The Last Life, is a novel about characters. Because the narrative shifts focus from character to character, giving each of them their turn in the spotlight, Ms. Messud is able to flesh out each one. This made The Emperor’s Children the sort of novel one reads not so much for the plot, but because one likes spending time with the characters. I can’t say that I liked them all all of the time, but I came to like them all and to want the best for each of them.
About half way through the book I realized that it was set in March of 2001 and I began to worry. I was tempted to leap to the back just to see what date the story ended on. None of the characters were aware of what was in store for them that September; no hints were given by the narrative. I would have finished the book in any case, but knowing what was in store for New York City transformed The Emperor’s Children into a page turner. I stayed up long past bedtime to finish it. The September 11, 2001 attacks make The Emperor’s Children a commentary not just on a small group of New Yorkers but the entire country. Like most of America, just about all of it to be honest, the characters in the novel continue with the drama of their daily lives, convinced that they are wearing fabulous clothes until someone comes along and points out that they are naked after all.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. It was the second novel by Clare Messud that I read. I remain a big fan of hers. Yes, I’m one of the people who loved The Woman Upstairs.