I found The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud a bit of a disappointment. I think part of my problem with the book is the huge amount of hype it has received. It's not that it's a bad book - it was quite readable, but it's really just another novel about tedious 30ish New Yorkers who haven't achieved the great things they expected. The characters are predictable - Marina the beautiful, wealthy, vapid daughter of a literary lion Murray, Danielle the quirky smart artistic best friend, and Julius the poverty stricken gay guy who rounds out their trio. Messud offers up some interesting plot (and character) possibilities, but she doesn't really follow through with them. Murray's nephew Frederick insinuates himself into their lives, writes a damning article about his uncle and then literally disappears without his character having any of the impact on the others that the reader is led to expect. Messud also builds a sense of impending doom regarding the upcoming marriage of Marina and Ludo, an Australian journalist. Why the his serious interest in her father? Why the whirlwind romance? What is it that he really wants from her? Why do all of the characters other than Marina mistrust and dislike him? Then the whole situation fizzles out after the nuptuals and nothing happens. The section that really delivers is between Julius and his lover. I was constantly torn between enjoying Messud's writing and wondering why she wasn't delivering more.
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This is an impressive book which I agree is a page turner and will keep your interest to the very end, which is quite surprising and welcomed. There are several characters that go through numerous ups and downs while searching for their way in life. I am glad that "The Emperor''s Children" appeared around September 11 because it really helps you to look further and to keep your faith and optimism. Highly recommended.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
107 of 122 people found the following review helpful
Balancing The ScalesDec 1 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
Every so often, I check into the review page for The Emperor's Children, just to see if anything has changed. I remember stopping by the first time, and being shocked by the poor reviews, and assuming it had to be a temporary twist of the numbers, that the universe will certainly right itself soon enough.
Well, it hasn't. I won't argue with anyone's experiences of the book -- that's far beyond what I can offer. I will say that, as a journalist in DC, it's far and away the most accurate examination of the Eastern intellectual class that I've encountered. Messud is a gorgeous writer whose scenes are deeply observed and hauntingly constructed. The world of the book is specific, to be sure, and it's possible, as you see in the reviews, that many won't relate. But if you went to a small liberal arts college; if you're fascinated, or resentful, or appalled, or attracted, by the pretensions of the self-styled intellectual set; if you like sharply written banter; you can hardly do better than this book.
386 of 466 people found the following review helpful
The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes!Dec 3 2006
- Published on Amazon.com
Since many reviewers have discussed the story line in detail, I will stick with my overall impressions of what I consider an extremely over hyped disappointing read.
In my opinion, none of the main characters are anywhere near as adorable as the author keeps insisting they are. Their most notable characteristic is a non-stop (and rather interchangeable) flow of campy repartee that might convey intellect, success, pretension, heartbreak, or whatever to someone steeped in their milieu but which kept me at a considerable emotional distance. The doomed idol, Murray Thwaite, in particular is dreadfully flimsy - is this the author's dream of an articulate, handsome, talented, unattainable (for others who wish to be him) Golden Boy. This sort of wish fulfillment at the reader's expense is simply unpalatable to the serious consumer. And, if this was to be a tongue in cheek attempt at humor, it fell far short of the mark.
I agree with other reviewers. It appears the author likes very long sentences; many paragraphs are absolutely incomprehensible. Are we to be impressed with the overuse of commas and dependent clauses so that it often takes two or three readings to render a sentence understandable? If this is the new era of grown-up writing, I'll stick to my mysteries and nonfiction.
But, I kept at it hoping that Messud would indeed pull it off in the end; however, the ending too was quite unsatisfactory. And, the use of the 9/11 tragedy to try to wrap it up is unforgivable. If so many New Yorkers of this age group truly were so wrapped in their own petty self-absorptions during this time period, God save our country. Could any of the characters see outside their own small contrived world? It would appear not. I won't be reading any more of Messud's work.
If you're hoping for a plot, forget it. You can just read a page and sit back and admire Messud's gift for metaphor, prose and description. But plot and character development are as thin as deli cheese and just about as smelly. It's sadly true, but all of these characters stink, for one reason or another.
Do yourself a favor, don't buy the book. If you've read the hype and still think it's worth it, check it out from a library or borrow a copy. In fact, let me know, I'll send you mine. The only thing it's good for is keeping coffee rings off my desk.
96 of 118 people found the following review helpful
The plot that wouldn't thickenMarch 5 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
You've really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot's two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:
"He remembered his father's telling him - his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless 'goodness' (Why had she married him? She'd been so beautiful, and such fun) - telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, 'You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son ...'"
See what I mean about size? Reviewers have already complained about the author's self-interrupting, drunkenly digressive prose style. They are entirely correct to do so. Claire Messud's book is festooned with sentences which are essentially motorway pile-ups of sub-clauses, codicils and parenthetical interpolations. Such a rookie mistake - which makes for hopelessly cumbersome reading - should never have made it past the editor.
The Emperor's Children concerns the lives of Danielle, Marina and Julius, three thirtysomething New York literati and their patriarch, the essayist Murray Thwaite, Marina's father. Onto this scene arrive two more brains: Ludovic Seeley is a viperish and talented journalist from Australia who has come to NY to launch a new magazine; and Bootie Tubb is Thwaite's bookish college-drop-out nephew, who has taken up residence (and employment) at his uncle's home. In summary, all six of Ms. Messud's characters are part of a literary intelligentsia. So she's a writer writing about writers. Which is what bad writers shorn of ideas always do (think Stephen King). With such lack of variety among its dramatis personae, one is left to wonder how the book's jacket can make the breathtaking claim to be about 'the way we live in this moment'. Does Ms. Messud presume that the ruminations of six Manhattanites parked in front of their word processors will have something to say to ambulance drivers? Surfers? Teenagers? I like to write occasionally, and even I quickly grew tired of these navel-gazers. Perhaps the cruel joke Ms. Messud has played on herself is that only self-absorbed people presume that all others are like them, and will therefore relate to self-absorbed characters.
Anyway, the praxis of the book is set in motion by nothing more original than Seeley's aim to expose Thwaite as an intellectual fraud of some sort. Once this rather abstract goal is announced, nothing at all happens. We sit around for several hundred pages awaiting the unmasking. It never happens. (The cat has died some time before, its passing memorialised with an entire chapter.) The life of the mind is an indolent one, and so the time must thus be passed with sex. Danielle has an affair with Seeley; Seeley has an affair with Marina; and - ridiculously - Thwaite has an affair with Danielle. Ms. Messud also finds time to go into the details of Julius's gay love life with tiresomely squeamish prurience - beneath the willfully nonchalant prose one can sense a novelist delighted by her own daring.
There are silly mistakes. Since Bootie quickly becomes disillusioned with his uncle and correspondingly determined to expose him, he essentially clones Seeley's role: the reader is now left wondering why we now have two characters doing the same thing. As for Seeley himself, he inexplicably marries the daughter of the man he wants to destroy - a bit socially awkward, that. If Bootie is so precociously well-read, why does he seem surprised to discover that Ireland is divided? But perhaps his ignorance reflects that of his creator, who incorrectly informs us that Ireland has 'a border in the middle' [p. 186]. (The border is in the north-east corner, partitions off only one-fifth of the island, and never reaches the west coast.) Messud writes that Thwaite 'blew smoke though his nose like a dragon' [p. 305], forgetting that this is now her third time using that expression.
There's intellectual spivvery. So much literary name-dropping goes on, but it all consists of obvious choices. Situations are repeatedly described as 'Beckettian'; Bootie is reading Tolstoy, Melville and Emerson ... but there's nothing in these references to indicate that Messud has done any more that *hear about* these writers. It's all paper-thin. And the ambitious Seeley's inspiration is ... Napoleon.
Suddenly, September 11 irrupts into the plot. Our flawed-but-lovable characters respond in their various ways: Seeley grieves copiously for the new magazine he was about to launch but now never will; Thwaite's wife gets her hair done; Bootie changes his name to an even sillier one and inexplicably disappears (and not before time, some readers might may say). So if this intrusion of a harsh and savage reality has no effect on our characters, why was it mentioned at all? To rob from real life a luridly exciting climax that the author hadn't the talent to create herself?
It's plain from the 'way we live now' claim that the book is trying to boldly capture the Zeitgeist, but the entire plot takes place in the minds of its characters, and the space in which they move is thus correspondingly constricted. The novel feels not so much like it's taking place in an era as in one rather stuffy, overpriced apartment.
I have found that there is a yawning gulf of difference between the public response to this book and the critical one. A while back I listened to two members of the New York literary intelligentsia (Stephen Metcalf, Katie Roiphe) being interviewed about the novel on Slate. Surprise, surprise: they both liked it. Metcalf even did some name-dropping of his own: Edith Wharton, Zadie Smith, David Lodge we all parachuted in. But even the comparisons he meant unkindly were too flattering.
Thus the literati peer deeply into the Emperor's Children's subtext, apparently unable to say the plain truth currently being howled by readers in general (and there for all to see): the book is a poor read and it has little to say.
40 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children"Nov. 13 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
Messud's novel, "The Emperor's Children" (2006) is a challenging, if only partially successful, satire of modern urban secularism set in New York City in 2001. In part a comedy of manners and in part a novel of ideas, the book deals diffusely with the pretensions and difficulties of intellectual life.
I think there are two interrelated groups of central characters in the novel. The first group consists of two people: Murray Thwaite, an aging liberal writer and social critic whose opinions and publications have come to command a nation-wide following. Thwaite's wife is an attorney with a career and life of her own, as she specializes in representing troubled young people. Thwaite has a manuscript in his desk which he hopes to publish someday setting forth in aphoristic form the insights he believes he has won over the years into the good life. Thwaite is also a philanderer and becomes involved, in this book, with a 30 year old woman named Danielle, discussed below. Twaite has a nephew, Frederick "Booty" Tubb who has dropped out of college and who reads writers including Emerson and Robert Musil. Thwaite hires Booty as a private secretary, and Booty betrays this trust by writing a highly uncomplimentary article based upon Twaite's draft and unpublished manuscript and on his observations of Thaite's private life.
The second group of main characters consists of three college friends who are about 30 years of age. Thwaite's daughter Mariana is an aspiring writer who has been struggling for several years to complete a book on children's clothing and its impact on society's view of people. Her friend Danielle is an aspiring producer of documentaries. Their common friend Julius is a free-lance writer who struggles to get by writing reviews. (shades of Amazon reviewing!) Each of the three characters is unmarried as the story opens. Marina and Danielle become rivals for the attention of Ludovic Seely, an Australian who has moved to New York to found a satirical magazine critical of pretension. Seely marries Marina, in the hope of furthering his prospects, and Danielle becomes involved in an affair with Thwaite. Julius is gay and in the midst of what will prove to be an unhappy and destructive relationship.
The plotting in the book is awkward and the scenes of New York City life are not strikingly drawn. I understand the frustrations of many of my fellow Amazon reviews who did not like this book. But I found the book provocative as a novel of ideas, and this in some measure redeemed it for me. The characters in the story each have their strengths and weaknesses, but they all tend to be self-centered. More importantly, they tend to be, even the successful Murray Thwaite, individuals suffering from a sense of uncertainty in finding a meaning in their lives. Messud writes about the respective situations of the characters without offering any easy answers in a way I found helpful.
In her look at the unfulfilling lives of her characters, Messud alludes many times to two factors I found striking. The first was the professed atheism or agnosticism of every character in the book which, Messud suggests, may have more than a little to do with their vacillating sense of life. But Messud offers a complex vision in which a return to religion is not a panacea. In one of the best moments of the novel, when Thwaite's wife has to interrupt a family holiday to help a young man who has been arrested, she declines to advise the troubled youth to turn to religion as a possible way to mitigate his troubles. Even if religion could be shown to help in such cases, she says, she is a nonbeliever herself, and would not feel she was acting properly in recommending a possible course of action in which she did not herself believe to a young person she was charged with helping. In the discussions of religion and secularity in the book, Messud explores an issue that remains troubling to many people.
The second factor that Messud explores with some subtelty involves gender issues. Messud makes a great deal of the liberal paterfamilias, Murray Twaite and his paternalism and philandering. But she has much more to offer than this somewhat tired critique. The young people in the book all show , at the age of 30, the greatest difficulty in establishing lasting heterosexual relationships. Julius is involved in a gay relationship and remarks at one point that the advantage of such arrangements is that the couple makes its own rules, free of what he claims to be the biases of society. His relationship unravels dramatically, but the point he tries to make about gay relationships seems to apply to all male-female relationships in a modernistic age: the couples make their own rules without standards to help or guide them. (The tie-in with secularism here is, I think, strong.) There is a feeling of sadness in this book that at the age of 30 both Danielle and Marina are floundering in the careers and have shown their inability to make a lasting sexual and loving connection for themselves.
I found a strong temptation in reading this book to see the author as suggesting a return to religion and to a sense of stable, nonfeminist gender expectations as part of a solution to the problems she develops in the book. (Most satire is fundamentally conservative.) But as she develops the character of "Booty" and to some extent the character of Murray Thwaite, I think she turns away from this conservative position. The book left me with the feeling, as she states in several places, that every person must make his or her own way in life. The lodestars are the authors to which Booty is devoted: Emerson, the prototypical American with his sense of the person creating himself anew and Musil, the modernist with his sense of ambiguity and of the difficulty of fixity. This is not a pretty or an easy way but, Messud to me suggests, it is all we have.
This is not a pretty or an easy book. But in the issues it explores it is thoughtful. Readers who are interested in sharper satrical portraits of intellectual life in New York City might enjoy the novels of Dawn Powell, whose works are available in the Library of America series.
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
seriously flawed, over-hypedJuly 12 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
I don't mind reading about characters that are unsympathetic and dull -- if the story has a point. Unfortunately, this book has no story. The author adequately illustrates the nature of narcissism, vanity, and wanton conceit; but her theme runs around in circles (tediously!) and never goes anywhere. She dangles plot lines that never ripen, and allows all the characters to remain static, essentially unchanged by the events that unfold.
The movie "Election" is a good example of how entertaining static characters can be when the storyteller merges cynicism with wit. Cynicism merged with poignancy is also compelling. Too bad for Massud that her cynicism is flaccid and aimless. I kept waiting for the pay-off that never came.
The story could have worked perhaps as a tale of cultural malaise, but Massud does't have the edge and scope of an author like Tom Wolfe.
And I can only marvel at the breathless review printed on the back cover that praises the author for being flawless and elegant... I actually found myself highlighting sentences in the book and reading them to my husband at night -- for a good laugh! I can't recall ever reading so many clunky, tortured, obtuse sentences in a published book.
I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! I can't locate some of my favorites because I encountered them while reading without a pen in hand, but here are a couple of samples:
From page 194: "Although possibly, it's true, thinking about all she couldn't say -- which boiled down to "Bootie, come home!" -- rather than about what he was actually whispering (he did fairly whisper, because his voice was naturally low, and because he didn't want the Thwaites to be disturbed) in her addled ear."
Here is a 137-word sentence from page 172: "A shrill man's voice silenced the room -- it was, Danielle could see, the bald editor in velvet who had claimed Murray Thwaite during cocktails -- and in echo droned and squeaked an annual recitation about the Journalists' Association and its marriage, back in the sixties, with the Writers Guild, giving birth to this unique organization in which writers of so many stripes might unite -- "Where the waratah and the bird of paradise conjoin," whispered Seeley, nodding at Madame Ballou, whose weakened chin appeared to tremble over her red jacket ad whose eyes grew heavy-lidded as the speech wore on; while behind her, several tables away but in an unimpeded visual line, sat the yellow silk torso he had noted earlier, topped by its long, eagerly quivering nose."
Some of the sentences have comically misplaced modifiers, some of them have multiple clauses offset by semicolons within clauses offset by hyphens, some of them are just plain weird.
From page 161: "Julius suggested a bath, a line or two of coke (this he had foreseen; and had separated a small portion of David's reserves for this use. He felt like his mother, fretting; but he hadn't wanted to countenance the possibility that the unknown Dale might go wild at the prospect of drugs in abundance, make a grab for the lot, deck his paramour, and flee), a porn video on the huge flat-screen TV hung on the living room wall."
Again, I would be more forgiving of a story that went nowhere if at least the writing were beautiful. In "The Emperor's Children," however, the writing is awkward, overwrought, and without rhythm.
I also found the use of 9/11 as a plot stunt near the end of the book to be jarring and a bit tacky.
The foregoing criticism is only part of the problem with Massud's book; the other part of the problem is the HYPE. I received the book as a gift from someone who bought two copies at once based upon the ecstatic reviews. She believed it to be the most consequential book of the year.
Indeed, the back cover brays that the novel is brilliant, flawless, engrossing, glistening with wit, refreshing, enchanting, ambitious, glamorous, gusty, kinetic, robust, canny, and searching. It purports that a consensus of credible periodicals had already found it to be one of the best books of the year. It promises the book to be a "great achievement" that will "likely be one of the most talked-about novels."
In some way, Massud is surely the poorer for having published her book in an era of silly praise inflation, in which every book is astonishing, amazing, breath-taking, and blah blah blah...
This book is not without merit; it's virtues are simply overcome by the weight of undue praise and disproportionate expectations.