Emperor's Children (Messud)

The Emperor's Children 
Claire Messud, 2006
Random House
528 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307276667

The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud's richly plotted, densely populated comedy of manners and ideas is set in New York City: not the august, whalebone-corseted New York of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence nor the brainy, feuding city of Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, but New York at the turn of the 21st century, when restaurants have taken the place of museums—and maybe even churches—and every new magazine launch is billed as the opening salvo of a revolution.

It's a New York where ideas, along with beauty, have become a form of currency, essential for anyone who wants to go anywhere but not to be taken too seriously. Much of the novel's comedy arises from the misunderstandings between those characters who understand this and those who don't: the latter have their hearts broken.

At the novel's center are two young women and a young man, friends since college, who are now entering their thirties. Marina Thwaite is a beautiful "It" girl who by virtue of her looks and connections has been given a contract for a book she's not sure she can write.

Danielle Minkoff is a thoughtful young woman laboring in the purgatory of television and longing romantically for something better.

Julius Clarke is frivolous, hard-living, and famously witty, having parlayed said wit into a career as a downtown critic but not much of a living: to his torment, he has to work temp jobs.

All of these three revolve at varying proximities around Murray Thwaite, Marina's father, an aging liberal journalist of lofty reputation and even higher self-estimation. It's he who is the Emperor of the novel's title. Soon Murray's gravity draws a fourth satellite, his young nephew Bootie, an awkward, worshipful boy who aspires to become a genius and sees Murray as essential to that objective.

It's Bootie's arrival in New York that sets much of the novel's events in motion.

He gets a job as Murray's secretary and — after Julius hooks up with a rich, doting boyfriend — sublets his apartment. He pines for Marina even as she becomes involved with the man Danielle had set her sights on, the elegant, serpentine Australian magazine editor Ludovic Seeley.

And when Bootie's worship of Murray predictably turns sour, he announces his change of heart with a gesture that destroys the equilibrium the other characters—mistakenly or not—took for happiness.

There are comedies that leave a book's characters with whipped cream on their faces and comedies that leave them deeply, and sometimes painfully, changed, and The Emperor's Children is one of those.

Thanks to Claire Messud's deft grasp of character, her flawless eye for New York's social hierarchies, and her deliciously unscrolling sentences, her book also changes the reader. (From the publisher.)

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