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BookBrowse Reviews The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

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The Emperor's Children

by Claire Messud

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud X
The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2006, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2007, 496 pages

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A novel about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way—and not—in New York City

The Emperor's Children is an exceptionally well written comedy of manners that successfully skewers a particular strata of New York literary life. As Ron Charles (writing for The Washington Post) so eloquently puts it, "We've all caught glimpses of them before, but Claire Messud has captured and pinned under glass members of a striking subspecies of the modern age: the smart, sophisticated, anxious young people who think of themselves as the cultural elite. Trained for greatness in the most prestigious universities, these shiny liberal arts graduates emerge with expensive tastes, the presumption of entitlement and no real economic prospects whatsoever. If you're one of them or if you can't resist the delicious pleasure of pitying them, you'll relish every page of The Emperor's Children."

Set in 2001, ending shortly after 9/11, the book title can be interpreted any number of ways. It could refer to the three almost 30-somethings who orbit around Thwaite patriarch, Murray (his daughter Marina, and her good friends from college Danielle and Julius) who, each in his or her own way, are waking up to the fact that the glorious life they imagined for themselves on leaving college is a crumbling facade behind which lurks the dull reality of earning a living wage.

It could also be applied to Murray's 19-year-old nephew, Bootie, who has worshiped Murray from afar as the epitome of an intellectual, but who once in the proximity of his "emperor" soon perceives that his uncle is not the man he took him to be and, in a fit of moral indignation, becomes determined to show the world that (to use the analogy of the old fairy tale about the Emperor's clothes) Murray's literary attire lacks substance.

Perhaps it is stretching interpretation too far, but I found myself thinking of the title as a reference to the USA as a whole, before the 9/11 reality check; and far from laughing at the pretensions of the protagonists, I found myself reflecting on my own life, being reminded that the mere fact that I have the time to worry about who I am and what my life "means" is an extraordinary luxury in itself!

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2006, and has been updated for the July 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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