Peter's Reviews > The Emperor's Children

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
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Feb 12, 09

Read in December, 2008

Spoiled thirty-somethings in New York City seek greater self-importance while interesting poor kid tries to make good and is shunned. Yay. Why do I keep turning the pages?

Oh right, because I’m a thirty-something in New York City. Unfortunately, the thirty-somethings in the novel are very different (hopefully) and much less interesting (again, hopefully).

To her credit, Messud’s writing, aside from an occasional bout of hyperverbosity, is spot on; she captures the emptiness of her characters beautifully. They live more in their fancy than in reality, trusting their ideas of other people and the world around them more than the evidence that stares them in the face. They navigate the world through the blinders of privilege and carry torches for irresponsibility and whim. They are modern day Buchanans.

But with only Bootie, the curious and incisive out-of-towner, to play the role of Nick—Bootie, who comes and goes in the text—the novel doesn’t deliver the way The Great Gatsby does. Bootie is certainly the protagonist of the novel, but he exists too far from the center of the novel, and as a result, his revelations are too much like easily overlooked footnotes.

Further, the events of 9/11 are a disappointing deus ex machina. They force a few characters to reevaluate their priorities, but they avert the confrontations that would really test and reveal the characters’ values. Characters are pushed into a forced retreat, and we are left feeling bitter that the dastards haven’t received their due.

But maybe that’s the point. Are we meant to be sympathetic to the characters, or is The Emperor’s Children a scathing criticism? The title would suggest the latter. The characters believe in their trappings, and we can see right through them. But if this is Messud’s plan, it seems to me that she indulges them a little too much. She gives us too much time with the Thwaites and the Seeleys, and we’re let into their thoughts a little too much.

Which brings me to the narrator. I’ve written before that the third-person omniscient narrator, with some authors, turns into a wildly unstable voice. Characters’ thoughts and mannerisms often slip in and out of the narrative without any announcement. Messud falls into this trap. I haven’t decided yet whether I think this is a problem, but it continues, in my mind, to be a source of inconsistency in the prose.

All told, I must confess that once I forced myself through the first fifty pages, I was hooked on the plot. It was like reading celebrity magazines. I couldn’t help but be curious about the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous. Is that, too, Messud’s point? ...that we succumb to our own titillation and secretly wish the downfall of those we ogle?

Do I recommend it? Maybe for the beach. There are so many other books to read…
Would I teach it? Nope. Too much emperor, not enough people seeing through his clothes.
Lasting impressions: Unsatisfied. Messud’s story offers some brain candy, some subtle commentary, and a few too many descriptions of West Side apartment lobbies.
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