Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

The Emperor's Children  Sometimes with books, timing is everything, and I think I read The Emperor's Children at the wrong time, or at least not at the best time.  If I had read it a few years ago, maybe when I still lived in New York, or shortly after moving or around the time I finished school, maybe I would have enjoyed it more.  This isn’t to say I didn’t like it, just that I might have liked it more at a different time.  This time it was good but also a little tedious.

At the center of the story are three people who have been friends since college: Danielle, Marina, and Julius.  Now they are 30 or nearing thirty and are finding life harder than they expected to be.  Danielle works in television and wants to make insightful programs but is confronted with the economic realities of her profession.  Julius has turned a talent for wit into a career as a critic, but still has to work temp jobs to make ends meet.  Mostly known for being pretty and for being the daughter of well-known journalist Murray Thwaite, Marina is working on a book about children’s clothes.  I use the term “working” loosely because for a large part of the story Marina hardly writes a word.  At one point she whines to her father about how she wants to do something important and wonders if maybe she should get a job.  Not a boring or meaningless job, of course.  It must be something important.  In the end she decides not to because she really needs to time to finish the book.  Not surprisingly, Marina is wealthy enough (or rather her parents are) to think this way.  Perhaps I would have had more empathy for Marina a few years ago.  Then again, maybe not.  While I understand wanting to do something important, as someone who has worked almost steadily since high school out of necessity, I found Marina's sense of entitlement oppressively annoying.

Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, Murray’s nephew and Marina’s cousin, inadvertently upsets the apple cart, albeit ever so slightly.  Bootie is a college dropout who seeks intellectual integrity.  Fleeing from his overbearing mother, he heads to New York.  Determined to pursue his education on his own terms, Bootie earnestly reads difficult books and tries to write about them.  He hopes that in New York his Uncle Murray will take him under his wing and teach him all that he knows.  Unfortunately Murray disappoints.  Murray turns out to be human, more human than Bootie anticipated.  Then September 11 happens and it changes everything and nothing.

Danielle is devastated not so much because of the carnage of September 11 itself, but because her boyfriend realizes he really needs to be with his wife.  Marina and Julius are more worried about their personal lives, admittedly they have messy personal lives, especially Julius.  What's amazing is that no event, little or large, inspires any of the three friends or Murray to change anything about their circumstances.  No one evolves in any meaningful way.

Bootie is the exception to the blanket of passivity and entitlement that seems to envelop Marina, Danielle, and Julius.  Overweight and socially awkward, Bootie is in many ways the polar opposite of his cousin Marina and her friends.  He's idealistic and judgmental, and is genuinely upset when he finds his uncle recycling some of his work.  Bootie is serious about reading, writing and life, perhaps a little too serious at times.  Maybe because he hasn't much to lose, Bootie is the one most willing to take charge of his life.  Unhappy with his circumstances, he sees a chance to escape and change his life and he takes it, twice. 

The cover of my copy has a quote calling the The Emperor's Children a "masterly comedy of manners."  On the back cover there are more quotes likening the novel to the writing of Edith Wharton and Tom Wolfe.  I wouldn't quite describe it in the same way.  Although there are some great passages, overall it wasn't particularly insightful or funny.  Or maybe too much time has passed.  I can imagine that when the novel was first published it presented an interesting take on September 11th and a certain slice of American life but now, not so much.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard a lot of positive words about this, too, but you make a good point about timing. Well done on What's In A Name, Tiffani!


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