Friends at Brown University, Marina, Danielle, and Julius are still looking to make their marks as they approach their 30s. Marina lives with her celebrated parents on the Upper West Side while trying to complete her book. TV producer Danielle's success is due to the puff pieces she churns out. Freelance critic Julius can barely make ends meet. Into this mix comes Bootie, Marina's college droupout cousin, who is just the catalyst the three friends need to start making siginificant changes in their lives.
Messud draws an intriguing portrait of a certain social class. The characters in this novel are are shallow, superficial, and materialistic. It was difficult to care much about any of them, but I still found myself oddly drawn to their stories -- like watching an impending train wreck. But this book takes place in 2001 (and remember, in New York City). So of course September 11 was like the elephant in the room the entire time I was reading this book. On several instances, characters discussed events planned for September, which I just knew wouldn't turn out as planned. I was curious how Messud would address this pivotal event in the novel. After finishing the book I was left wondering if setting the novel in 2001 was just an afterthought, a convenient way to tie up the plot. The year is casually thrown into the text about 50 pages in. September 11 occurs 60 pages from the end of the book, and while it understandably changes the characters' lives, it was an all-too-easy way to catalyze certain events and bring the novel to a close. While this was a light read and somewhat pleasurable, it wasn't quite my thing.
too much time to tell it took,
cast and story unappealing,
conclusion left me under reeling.
So if it wasn't obvious I somehow missed that this book was a September 11 book and was not expecting even if it were for it to turn to crap the moment tragedy struck the privileged New Yorkers the novel followed.
I think it was supposed to be some half-cocked social commentary about how privilege and entitlement are evil and those of us who did not drop out of college to self-educate are evil and will be the fall of western civilization.
What this book actually was about until about 80 pages from the end was sex, betrayal, and how what people see may not necessarily reflect the true person.
The characters for the most part are single faceted and vapid. Marina, a former/current beauty of 30 living off her parents until a man her best friend was interested gives her a job and a sex life. Murray her father a former hippieish journalist who can't find a liberal cause he doesn't like on paper but won't be in the same room as his wife's misguided juvenile delinquent client from her true social work. Danielle, an over-qualified documentary producer, best friends with Marina and secret paramour to Murray. Bootie, Murray's nephew who comes to NY hoping to learn from his uncle only to find the cracks in his facade and attempt to bring them to the public eye. And finally Julian who was hipster before it was cool to be a hipster until he meets a yuppie man and abandons all his hipster irony for being a trophy wife.
Now as great as any of the story lines were about 80 pages from the end September 11 happens and anything occurring before automatically stopped as if someone pressed stop on the remote control and they all seem to get their lives together in a split second and it all becomes droll and boring because they are all moral upstanding citizens in the wake of tragedy. And really there isn't anything else to say because the story just stops. No one remains friends everyone for better or worse goes the separate ways as if the last 10 years hadn't happened and let's face it breaks are never that clean. It just left you feeling cheated at the end. And you were because you just wasted 4ish hours of your life on this piece of literary excrement.
My advice don't waste the time it takes to read this literary disaster and instead read. . .. um well anything really. because in the words of sweet brown "ain't nobody got time for that".
This is the start of Dai's story of his next week, told partly as a flow of consciousness, partly as a conversation with someone whose identity we never find out. Interesting, touching, but sometimes irritating as well. Dai's thoughts are written in slang, and that is often hard to read ("yewer one of the Silures Dai don yew ever forget it e use to say"). And I always get irritated with characters that just drift along without having a clue what or where they are going and without the need to get a clue either. And I hate the end
All through "The Emperor's Children", I kept crossing days off the mental calendar in my head. I knew what was coming, even though the characters did not. It was impossible for me to shed this knowledge...which might be one of the reasons I felt such impatience with the incredibly self-absorbed characters that are the emperor's children. Halfway through the book, I was almost eager for them to arrive at September 2001 so that the events of that day (month, really) might smack them across the face and make them think for 2 seconds about something outside their entitled little lives. (I won't go so far as to say I hoped one of them might schedule a breakfast meeting in lower Manhattan that Tuesday morning, but I wouldn't have shed any tears had one of them done so.) I guess Messud might have/probably meant Julian, Marine, Danielle and Murray to represent the US and our inability to see ourselves as part of the world instead of the most important thing(s) in it...but that certainly didn't make me like these people...
I have a disadvantage as a reader in that it's hard for me to like a book in which I can't find ONE character to like or to sympathize with or at the very least, to relate to. (My friend Jennifer is always disappointed in me for this flaw.) The only character in TEC I might have had a chance with was Annabel...but she remains so fare removed from anything that happens in the book that she is little more than a ghost character, a placeholder.
There were a few lines I made note of. When Murray (the emperor of sorts) is considering whether his daughter is special (like he is) or simply ordinary, he thinks, "Wasn't irrelevance, the dutiful petty life what everyone ultimately wanted to shed? And wasn't shedding as important as embracing, in the formation of an adult self? And then he thought of Marina, raised as he'd wished to have been raised, and stymied, now, by the very lack of smallness, by the absence of any limitations against to rebel."
The one character we are supposed to root for, I suppose, Frederick/Bootie, comes from that small life and has much against he can rebel. He is ensconced for a short while in the sheltered circle around Murray, given privileges but does not embrace them as the others do. Instead, he drifts too close and then is burned. "...surely this was where the man's greatness lay. How could Bootie have failed to understand? Because, of course, it guaranteed, it predetermined his own failure; and there had been too much at stake for him in that. Until now: this (9/11), the end of the world as he knew it, had known it, changed everything. The Tower of Babel tumbling. An end to false idols. And Murray, whose greatness lay not in his words or his actions but simply in his capacity to convince people of his greatness, starting, naturally, with himself..."
Although Murray is the most obviously self-absorbed character in this novel, all of them are insufferable. Danielle is far more upset by her love life than by the massive death and destruction right outside her door, Marina lives at home at the age of 30 but doesn’t want to get an “unimportant” job…the list goes on.
And yet? Despite all of this – I have written one of my longest reviews ever. I suppose “The Emperor’s Children” gave me more food for thought than I realized…hmmmm….
Messud creates a novel about the upper classes: their attitude of entitlement, their petty betrayals, their focus on power. In doing so, she reveals some interesting truths about humanity. I enjoyed her observations about higher education:
'The Land of Lies in which most people were apparently content to live - in which you paid money to an institution and went out nightly to get drunk instead of reading the books and then tried to calculate some half-assed scheme by which you could cheat on your exams, and then, at the end of the day, presumably simply on account of the financial transaction between you, or more likely your parents, and said institution, you declared yourself educated - was not sufficient for Bootie.' - From The Emperor's Children, page 55 -
...about raising children and giving them everything their hearts desire:
'Murray Thwaite had little patience for this. He suddenly saw his daughter as a monster he and Annabel had created - they and a society of excess.' - From The Emperor's Children, page 66 -
...and about high tech, computerized corporate America:
'The company, it seemed, engaged in middle man activity, the procuring of rights - of abstractions - that permitted, elsewhere, the actual trading of information (also abstract) for huge sums of money. Which was, of course, itself abstract. It was a though the entire office were generating and moving, acquiring and passing on, hypotheticals, a trade in ideas, or hopes, to which value somehow accrued.' - From The Emperor's Children, page 60 -
Messud has written a sharp, witty expose that intrigued me. Her writing is observant, her characters complex and well developed. Although this is not the type of book I usually enjoy, I found myself unable to put it down.
Marina Thwaite, a former Vogue “it” girl and daughter of a famous writer and intellectual, is floundering in her adult life. She is supposed to be finishing the book for which she's received a hefty advance, a study of children's clothes and their subsequent impact on society, titled “The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes.”
Danielle is a television producer from Columbus Ohio who is constantly searching for a viable story idea, whether it is aborigines in Australia or liposuctions gone bad. At times she is envious of her more glamorous friend.
Julius is an independent critic, impoverished and searching for the right man with which to share his life and his expensive taste.
The lives of these three friends become complicated when Marina's cousin Bootie arrives in New York . A college dropout, he is hoping to find some direction and purpose in the presence of his uncle, Murray Thwaite, an opinionated intellectual and Marina's father, in whose shadow she perpetually lives.
The novel contains betrayals aplenty, and climaxes when the planes hit the twin towers in September. It is meant to be a study of life in New York at that particular moment in time.
Messud writes well, despite her frequent use of run-on sentences. The TurboBookSnob wanted to like this novel more than she actually did. The characters on the whole were not likeable, perhaps because they are always seeking the approval of others, and there didn't seem to be any redemption in store for them. This is an entertaining read, but is a long shot for the 2006 Booker Prize shortlist.