Doorstopper of the Month: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (2006)

My impression of Claire Messud is that she’s admired by critics but unpopular with ordinary readers (e.g. this novel has a catastrophically low average rating on Goodreads, probably because of that “unlikable characters” chestnut). I fit into both categories, so was curious to see where I would fall on the appreciation spectrum. Doubly intrigued by Susan’s inclusion of The Emperor’s Children on her list of top New York novels, I finally picked up the copy I’d gotten from the free mall bookshop where I volunteered weekly in ordinary times.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that this is a 9/11 novel. It opens in March 2001 and covers the next eight months, with “the towers” first getting a mention at the halfway point. There’s heavy irony in one character commenting to another in the first week of September, “Whatever else they may be, our times are almost criminally uninteresting. The dullest times ever.” As in a couple of novels I read last year (not naming them in case that is a spoiler), the terrorist attacks wake the main characters up from a stupor of entitlement and apathy.

The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up. Marina still lives with her parents, social worker Annabel and respected cultural pundit Murray Thwaite. She got an advance to write a book on children’s fashions, but the project has languished for years. Her best friend Danielle is a documentary maker mired in an affair with an older man. Their other close pal is half-Vietnamese Julius, whose new boyfriend keeps him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed.

The arrival of two young men sets the plot in motion. Through Danielle, Marina meets Ludovic Seeley, who has moved from Australia to New York City to launch a magazine, The Monitor, for which he is soliciting cutting-edge cultural exposés. Meanwhile, Murray’s nephew, college dropout Frederick Tubb, who has the unfortunate nickname of “Bootie,” has moved to the City to seek his fortune. Murray offers him a job as his amanuensis, but what Bootie learns leads him to wish he could expose his idolized uncle as an intellectual fraud.

For these characters, leaving an extended childhood behind means getting out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassessing what is admirable and who is expendable. As Marina’s book title (The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes) indicates, appearance and substance do not always match. I won’t give away what 9/11 means for this fictional world, though I’d be interested in discussing it in the comments with anyone who’s read the book. Bootie was my favorite, and what happens with him is particularly interesting.

This was thoroughly engrossing: richly textured and intellectually satisfying in a way that might call to mind George Eliot and Edith Wharton – or, more recently, Jennifer Egan and Zadie Smith. Great American Novel territory, for sure. I’ll be keen to read more by Messud.

Page count: 581

My rating:

22 responses

  1. Temperamentally, I’m not in the right place for a door stopper just now. Nor for a book that’s set at a time of apocalyptic change. But I’ll bookmark this one for later, and less troubled times (one can always hope…).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most of the book precedes 9/11, so it doesn’t feel particularly depressing. But I can understand if it doesn’t appeal right now. Books are patient 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Rebecca, and thanks for the link. I’ve not enjoyed all Messud’s fiction but this one stood out for me. I loved that famous unlikeable charater retort!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! Thanks for pointing me to a winner.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never read anything by Messud, but your review has convinced me that I ought to. I’m not averse to a bit of a doorstopper, though I’m on one at the moment so may wait a little while before tackling this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you’re interested! I can only manage one doorstopper per month (and sometimes I don’t even manage that).

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  4. I quite enjoyed this, but liked her Woman Upstairs even more. It was shorter, angrier, funnier and sadder!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds great to me! I think my local library has a copy, so I’ll plan on borrowing it once we reopen.

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  5. I’m always intrigued by literary writers that have awful GR ratings. Sometimes I think it stems from a marketing mismatch – I stopped reading Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, for example, not because it wasn’t good but because I was in the mood for a thriller when I started it, and it was soon clear that it wasn’t that sort of book. I’ve just finished and loved Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! which is also hated by GR…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a risky thing, going by the average rating. Sometimes I use it to weed out my TBR list, e.g. anything in the low 3.0 range in a certain genre I’ll remove. But then again, a few favourites of mine have average scores of 2.-something!

      Oh really? I’m surprised by that! I loved Swamplandia!, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually find that I often like books with really low ratings!

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    2. They can go either way for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I slightly skimmed your review as I have this lined up to read in September. I’ve only read The Woman Upstairs but I enjoyed it very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A second vote for The Woman Upstairs — I’m sold! Hope you enjoy this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I own it but have never read it. I also own Messud’s The Last Life and haven’t read it either. So many books to read! Even so, she’s an author whose work I want to know. Thanks for this post. You’ve brought her back to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One to read around the 9/11 anniversary, perhaps?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought I read this years ago, but nothing you’ve said sounds familiar. I might be mixing it up with something else. But I did read The Woman Upstairs – I loved the beginning and the end, but the middle felt a bit long. The anger was so good, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m looking forward to The Woman Upstairs. It’ll be in my third batch of library reservations — I’ve got it all mapped out 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint | Reply

    Aww, I had a copy of this but had to let it go some time ago and now wish I had it at hand once more. You’ve made it sound irresistible. She’s a writer who intrigued me for a long time, so I picked her up whenever I found her second-hand, and then I read The Woman Upstairs and loved what she did with it. Along with the writers you’ve mentioned, I also think of her with Meg Wolitzer and Amy Bloom, both often focussing on relationships and making the personal-is-political adage evident without preaching about it. Also, of COURSE you have your third batch of library reservations planned: who doesn’t. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wolitzer is a good comp. I’ve read a couple of her books now and have another (The Interestings) on hold with the library.

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