Jul 30, 07
My more precise rating is 3 1/2 stars, if that were possible on this site.
In The Emperor's Children, Messud pulls off feats central to the novel that are the marks of a great writer. Principally, various aspects of the novel's pacing dazzle. Over about 400 of its almost 500 pages, the intertwined plots of the novel slowly grow, weave together, evolve, and fall away from one another in a manner that delicately holds the reader's attention. In addition, while character is not often spoken of in terms of pacing, it too is a measured creation here, chapter by chapter. Of a handful of principal characters, the reader learns more about each as "their" portions of the plot develop; and, with particular adeptness on Messud's part, as the reader increasingly understands how each of the characters view one another. This, too, is strung from the novel's beginning to its end, such that every character is, essentially, a moving target from the reader's perspective. A character may be the same "person" throughout, but the reader's knowledge of each character moves and shifts dramatically as the novel proceeds.
These elements of The Emperor's Children make it a great piece of storytelling. I found it difficult to put down. But what if all Messud lures the reader into is an intellectually minded soap opera and a smart character study, both of which stop mid-stream? Abruptly? And what if, before stopping, the author's point in her intellectually minded soap opera and smart character study is wholly muddled?
These two shortcomings of The Emperor's Children make it but a good novel; not a great one. Thematically, it points far too timidly in far too many directions. Further, this is not a novel where the story ends on a denouement but leaves the reader an apprehensible ongoing story beyond its pages. The novel simply ends. Stops. As if Messud were tired of writing more.