Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further
reading, and author biography that follow are meant to enliven your
groups discussion of The Emperors Children, Claire Messuds
richly plotted, densely populated comedy of manners and ideas. Like
some of its high-profile antecedents, its set in New York City: not
the august, whalebone-corseted New York of Edith Whartons The Age of Innocence nor the brainy, feuding city of Saul Bellows Humboldts Gift, butNew
York at the turn of the 21st century, when restaurants have taken the
place of museumsand maybe even churchesand every new magazine launch
is billed as the opening salvo of a revolution. Its a New York where
ideas, along with beauty, have become a form of currency, essential for
anyone who wants to go anywhere but not to be taken too seriously. Much
of the novels comedy arises from the misunderstandings between those
characters who understand this and those who dont: The latter have
their hearts broken.
At the novels center are two young women
and a young man, friends since college, who are now entering their
thirties. Marina Thwaite is a beautiful It girl who by virtue of her
looks and connections has been given a contract for a book shes not
sure she can write. Danielle Minkoff is a thoughtful young woman
laboring in the purgatory of television and longing romantically for
something better. Julius Clarke is frivolous, hard-living, and famously
witty, having parlayed said wit into a career as a downtown critic but
not much of a living: to his torment, he has to work temp jobs. All of
these three revolve at varying proximities around Murray Thwaite,
Marinas father, an aging liberal journalist of lofty reputation and
even higher self-estimation. Its he who is the Emperor of the novels
title. Soon Murrays gravity draws a fourth satellite, his young nephew
Bootie, an awkward, worshipful boy who aspires to become a genius and
sees Murray as essential to that objective.
arrival in New York that sets much of the novels events in motion. He
gets a job as Murrays secretary andafter Julius hooks up with a rich,
doting boyfriendsublets his apartment. He pines for Marina even as she
becomes involved with the man Danielle had set her sights on, the
elegant, serpentine Australian magazine editor Ludovic Seeley. And when
Booties worship of Murray predictably turns sour, he announces his
change of heart with a gesture that destroys the equilibrium the other
charactersmistakenly or nottook for happiness. There are comedies
that leave a books characters with whipped cream on their faces and
comedies that leave them deeply, and sometimes painfully, changed, and The Emperors Children is
one of those. Thanks to Claire Messuds deft grasp of character, her
flawless eye for New Yorks social hierarchies, and her deliciously
unscrolling sentences, her book also changes the reader.
At the novels onset, most of the characters are outside
New York: Danielle in Australia, pursuing an idea for a story and
finding someone to have a crush on; Marina at her parents summer house
in Stockbridge, accompanied by Julius; and Bootie in his mothers house
in upstate New York. Why might Messud have chosen to begin in this
manner? At what other points in the book do the characters leave the
city and with what results?
Messud introduces her characters
through their environments: the womblike bathroom where Bootie soaks in
hot water and serious literature; the Thwaites resplendent Central
Park West apartment; and Danielles pristine, aesthetically
climate-controlled studio. What do these spaces tell us about their
occupants? Why might the author have used this rather old-fashioned way
of ushering us into a novel set in 2001? Where else does she employ the
techniques of an earlier age of literature?
Which of the
novels characters strikes you as its moral center? Is it Bootie, who
comes to New York with such high ideals and easily rankled feelings? Is
it Danielle, who has lived there long enough to feel at home there but
who still sees its pretensions and absurdities? With which of these
characters is the reader meant to identify? Whose judgments seem the
most reliable? And what flaws or blind spots afflict even him or her?
Julius is obsessed with the characters of Pierre and Natasha from War and Peace,
longing to be the sparkling Natasha but fearing hes really more like
the brooding, self-conscious Pierre. Bootie is constantly reading
Emerson. Which of the other characters has an emblematic book, and what
role do those books play in their lives, in the way they see the world,
and, of course, the way they see themselves? Is Julius anything like
Pierre or Natasha? Does Bootie really live up to Emersons criterion of genius? At what points do they similarly misread other characters?
In addition to reading, many of Messuds people are also engaged in
writing: Marina has her book-in-progress and Murray has his (which hes
thinking of calling How to Live), and Bootie has his essay on
Murray (and Murrays book). What is their relationship to their
writing? What do they hope to achieve through it? How do other
characters respond to it? Does Messud give us any indication as to
which of these characters work is good (or genuine) and which is
failed or fraudulent?
Almost everybody in The Emperors Children
envies, and is intimidated by, somebody else. Julius, for instance, is
in awe of Marinas self-confidence and envious of her sense of
entitlement. Marina is cowed by her father. And poor Bootie is a
virtual pressure cooker of indiscriminate awe and resentment. What sort
of things do Messuds characters feel insecure about? Is there anyone
in the book who seems truly comfortable with him or herself or any
relationship that seems to be conducted by equals? Would you say that
awe and envy are this novels dominant emotions?
learn, frequently accompanies Murray to public functions, and is
sometimes mistaken for his trophy wife.  Does their relationship
strike you as incestuous (in which case its a brilliant stroke of
Messud to make Ludovic call her her fathers Anna Freud )?
Compare Marinas unfolding relationship with Ludovic to her bond with
her father. Do you think that Ludovicincidentally, the only major
character who is seen entirely from the outside, through the eyes of
othersreally loves Marina or is merely using her, and if so for what
Just as Marina has symbolically taken over her
mothers role, Danielle had the peculiar sensation of having usurped
her friends role in the Thwaite family, and more than that, of having
usurped it at some moment in the distant past, a decade or more ago:
she felt like a teenager. . . , and she was suddenly, powerfully aware
of the profound oddity of Marinas present life, a life arrested at, or
at least returned to, childhood.  How many of the other characters
seem similarly suspended? Which of them seems like a full-grown adult,
and what does it mean to be an adult in the scheme of this novel? If
Danielle has indeed usurped Marinas place, what is the significance of
her affair with Marinas father? Which of the other characters takes on
another characters role, and for what reasons?
to take a job, Marina confesses, I worry that that will make me
ordinary, like everybody else.  To what extent are other
characters possessed by the same fear, and how do they defend
themselves against it? Do they have a common idea of what constitutes
ordinariness? Can ordinariness even exist in a social world in which
everyone is constantly, feverishly striving to be unique? Is it
possible that Marina is just lazy and prevaricating in her charming way?
With his high-flown ambitions, his indolence, and his appalling sense
of hygiene, Bootie initially seems like a comic character. But in the
course of the novel Messuds portrait of him darkens until he comes to
seem either sinister or tragicperhaps both. How does she accomplish
this? Which other characters does she gradually reveal in a different
light? Compare Messuds shifting portrayal of Bootie to her handling of
Julius and Danielle. In what ways do they too evade or defy the
readers initial expectations about them?
Ludovic repeatedly declares that he wants to make a revolution with his magazine The Monitor, but what is the magazine supposed to be about? Lest we think that The Emperors Children
is merely a satire of the New York media, what other highly touted
ideas in this novel turn out to be light on substance, and what does
this suggest about the value of ideas at this historical moment?
On similar lines, both Ludovic and Bootie denounce Murray as a fraud
while Bootie in particular prides himself on his sincerity. But is such
sincerity a good thing? What other characters embrace that virtue, and
with what results? Compare Booties frank literary assessment of his
uncle with Murrays frank critique of his daughters manuscript, or his
even franker response to Booties essay. When in this novel does
honesty turn out to be a pretext for something else? And when do
subterfuge and deception turn out to be acts of kindness?
Murray feels that his mothers efforts at improving him succeeded only
in turning her boy into someone, something, she couldnt understand.
 By contrast, he thinks, Marina has been paralyzed by the very
expansiveness of her upbringing. What does this novel have to say about
parents and children? Which of the Emperors children has proved a
disappointment to his or her parents? Does any parent in this novel
(Murray, Annabel, Judy, Randy) truly understand his or her offspring?
And is it good for said offspring to be understood?
Messuds characters begin the novel in a state of happiness and others
attain it, but nearly all of them see their happiness threatened or
even shattered. How does this come about? Which of them is the victim
of outside forces and which is responsible for his or her fall? How
would you describe this novels vision of happiness? Considering that
the typical comedy has a happy (or happy-ish) ending, what do you make
of the fact that so many of Messuds characters end up bereft or
Among this novels many characters, one has to
include the character of New York City. How does Messud bring the city
to life? Compare Murrays New York with Marinas and Danielles,
Booties and Juliuss. What is it that draws a Bootie Tubb and a Julius
Clarke, a Danielle Minkoff and a Ludovic Seeley to prove themselves in
What role do the events of September 11, 2001, play in The Emperors Children?
Are there other points when historyor, put another way,
realityimpinges on the safe and mostly privileged world its characters
inhabit? What is the significance of Annabel Thwaites client DeVaughn
or results of Julius and Davids affair? Does the ending make sense
when compared with the rest of the novel?
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility;
Saul Bellow, Herzog, Humboldts Gift;
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance;
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby;
Henry James, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl;
Diane Johnson, Le Divorce;
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country;
Jay McInerney, Brightness Falls, The Good Life;
Dawn Powell, The Wicked Pavilion, Angels on Toast;
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth;
Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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