Emperor's Children (Review)

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The Emperor's Children
Claire Messud, 2006
528 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2011

The title of Claire Messud's book is a dead giveaway—think "clothes" instead of "children." Things in Messud's world are not how they appear; there is a wide gap between perception and reality, what people say they believe in and what they do in their lives.

Training her eye on New York's glittering literati, Messud has written a stinging comedy of manners, in the style of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Tom Wolff. The Emperor's Children is that good. The beauty of her book is following the multiple strings of plot and characters as she works her way toward the finale.

That people are not what they seem is the hard lesson learned by the book's 30-something Manhattanites—Danielle Minkoff, Julius Clarke, and Marina Thwaite. The threesome met at Brown University and have spent the past decade struggling to fulfill the promise of their sterling education. It is now 2001.

The emperor of the title is Marina's father, Murray Thwaite, a celebrated New York intellectual with impeccable credentials. Thwaite lives with his attorney wife and their daughter, Marina, in an elegant Central Park West apartment—it's an enviable life. Why, then, would he desire something more, an affair with his daughter's best friend, Danielle?

Into this mix comes Ludovic Seeley, a charismatic Australian, with plans for a new magazine that will rattle cages, expose artifice, and revolutionize journalism. The match that threatens to set the cauldron ablaze is struck by Booty Tubb, Thwaite's 20-year-old nephew, who becomes his assistant.

The real blaze, however, comes on 9/11—an event that alters the trajectory of everyone and everything. The planes that strike the twin towers—not Ludovic's new magazine or Murray's feckless ideals—have created the true revolution, action born of intense belief, ideas that changed the world.

At the end, a chastened Danielle, the single character we follow with sympathy, is left with her own "gaping crater" mirroring the one left by the twin towers. When she stumbles upon Bootie, who has been presumed dead, he tells her he's now a different person. "Me, too," says Danielle. Then, referring to Murray, his uncle and Daniell's lover, Bootie says:

"But he isn't who you thought he was, is he?"

"I don't even know that. I'm not sure I know who I think
I am" [Danielle answered]....

"So it happens to us all," he said.

This is a stunning, densely layered novel—ironic, intelligent, and thoroughly engaging. It's one of the best. Don't miss it.

See our Reading Guide for The Emperor's Children.

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