Katherine's Reviews > The Emperor's Children

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
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's review
Oct 10, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: newer-fiction
Recommended to Katherine by: Alison Sharpe
Recommended for: striving new york city thirty-pushers, of course.

This book came in for a drubbing from the Goodreads community that was very much at odds with the fulsome praise on its back cover. Where I shall I situate myself on this continuum of blame to praise?

At over 400 pages, The Emperor's Children is long, but I raced through it, inhaling sections like I've been known to do with big bowls of salty, buttery popcorn. This may have something to do with where I'm at, right now -- craving the kind of escape that narrative provides -- but it's also a testament to the author's knack for pacing. It's a long book made up of very short chapters, and I got addicted to running from porthole to porthole, peering in at the characters and plot-lines in quick succession. I stayed up way past my bedtime last night, to finish.

I think The Emperor's Children is trying to be an old-fashioned novel (the dust-cover praise mentions Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Waugh) about new times and new things. I think that's an interesting goal, in these subjectivity-obsessed times of ours. The narrator is omniscient and removed but all-seeing. The characters span a (fairly) wide range of ages and social backgrounds. The author strives for a timeless, stately tone, too. Most of the time she succeeds. Somebody already pointed out her Jamesian long sentences. Usually it's lovely. She likes to avoid split infinitives by putting the adjective before the infinitive rather than after it ("boldly to go," "naturally to finish"), which sounds a little high-flown, but it works with it.

About a third of the way in, I found myself wondering how we are meant to take the characters in this book, as in, how seriously, and how we are to judge them, because there does seem to be an invitation to judgment. (It is, after all, a novel of manners. That's what we're supposed to do with them, right?) Some of the reviewers seem inclined to write the book off because they deem the characters to be shallow, but I think that some degree of shallowness, or hypocrisy, was the point. Actually, I'd like to get into this conversation with someone...is the book supposed to be an indictment of the people in it, or the world it portrays? What's 9/11 doing at the end, anyway, besides being climactic?

In the end, I think I enjoyed the novel more as a fast-moving story and as a very vivid collection of details from disparate worlds than I did as a commentary on social life or a portrait of inner life, if that makes sense. Even though some of the characters failed to inspire my sympathy at times, I continued to be curious about what was going to happen to them next. More than anything else, what struck me was Claire Messud's facility with details. We get the minutest descriptions of the inside of a grubby shared college house, right down to the slimy chain you have to plunge your hand into the tank to retrieve before flushing, and then the precise contents of the fridge at an Upper West Side apartment facing the Park, then the exact books and CDs on the shelves of a 30-year-old working woman's studio. For every detail that seemed a little bit off, and there were a few that I was inclined to cavil at because they don't match MY reality, there were a handful of others that made me think, 'my god! She's not supposed to KNOW this stuff!'

In any case, I'll doubtless think about this book often if only because the building where the character Danielle Minkoff, the book's moral center, was supposed to have lived really exists, and is clearly visible from the corner where I catch the subway to come home from work.

Writers about New York City have a peculiar advantage and disadvantage that way, it seems. There are a lot of eyes in this city, and while everybody likes reading about something they have a personal experience of, everybody's quick to jump on the person who gets it even a little bit wrong. I'm a New Yorker (five-ish years here?) and nearing 30 and while I don't feel that Marina's, Julius's, or even Danielle's world maps perfectly onto mine, it'd be churlish not to admit that there are a few points of contact, or that reading about the familiar/unfamiliar world these characters inhabit isn't good fun.

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Reading Progress

October 10, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
October 13, 2008 – Finished Reading
October 15, 2008 – Shelved as: newer-fiction

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Peter (new) - added it

Peter Katherine,

Terrific review. I raised the same question in mine about whether or not we're meant to condemn the actions of the privileged in The Emperor's Children. I think Messud does intend it, but I don't think she entirely succeeds... Thoughts?


Katherine I agree with what you said about how it was like reading celebrity magazines.

I also agree about 9/11 being a disappointing deus ex machina. I wanted to know what happened when Danielle and the elder Thwaite were found out in their affair. I also didn't quite know what to make of Bootie's disappearance -- lighting out for the territories like Huckleberry Finn, but somehow more sinister. Did you like Bootie? Did you think we were meant to? I didn't like him much. Maybe the contrast between the too-mannered New Yorkers and the not at all mannered Bootie was the point. Both equally problematic. But what then? What does the novel value? I'm thinking about all the instances of work that are done in the novel: Mrs Thwaite's charity work, Marina's writing, Murray's writing, Bootie's screed, Danielle's film production, Julius's freelance work. All are problematized, right? The value of all is called into question. I'm trying to think whether there's some sort of work or other activity that is valorized, but I'm drawing a blank. You got anything?

message 3: by Jason (new)

Jason Pettus Katherine, I just became aware of this book today, and was on the fence because of all the subpar reviews here; but your write-up makes me just interested enough in it now to add it to the queue. I'll definitely let you know what I thought of it when I finally get around to reading it.

message 4: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Wow Katherine, you are seriously like the only person on here who didn't HATE this book. I actually have a copy -- not sure where it came from -- and was about to crack it open, but I checked friends' reviews on here first and everyone except you is furiously demanding their time, money, and brain-space back. And you, while bringing up some of its good points, didn't seem to love it. And there's the 9/11 thing, which is really a deal-breaker for me... but it is interesting that this was such a successful book by most measures, and that so many people here did read it, but then nearly all of them winded up loathing it. It's enough to make me curious... though not curious enough.

Arthur Goldgaber Katherine. Hi! I enjoyed reading your review and I agree about the great detail that Massoud puts into the book. I also lived in Manhattan, but my life was not like these characters! I think the book is a good read. I have read that publishers like this kind of very readable literary fiction.

message 6: by Ann (new)

Ann Brogan Wow, a fantastically crafted review - you should write yourself!

Katherine Thanks, Ann! I actually do, or at least, I try. ;-)

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