The Emperor's Children

by Claire Messud

Hardcover, 2006

Call number




Knopf (2006), 448 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Marina, Danielle, and Julius were classmates at Brown University and are all now approaching 30, and making their way in New York City. Marina is the daughter of Murray Thwaite, a famous journalist. She has been working on her first book for many years, and has never held a "real job." She lives with her parents, having recently moved back home after ending a long-term relationship. Julius is a gay freelance writer who lives lives in a squalid apartment and finds work through a temp agency while waiting for his next writing assignments. Danielle produces television programs, and is the only one with a steady income. The Emperor's Children follows these three over the course of a year. While they rarely cross paths in their day-to-day lives, the bonds of friendship are strong and they do call on each other for help and support. Another key figure in this story is Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, Murray's nephew, who has dropped out of university, and came to New York hoping to find himself and make a living. Murray provides Bootie a place to live, and takes him on as his secretary. Danielle is instrumental in finding Marina a job with a magazine startup, and Marina offers both Julius and Bootie the chance to write an article for the inaugural issue. Julius meets romantic interest David through one of his temp jobs, and begins to move in very different social circles. All of the young people look up to Murray as a role model of the successful and wealthy writer. Meanwhile, Murray is dealing with a bit of a mid-life crisis, and struggles to control everyone around him.

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.
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LibraryThing member gocam
Here is problem with the book,
too much time to tell it took,
cast and story unappealing,
conclusion left me under reeling.
LibraryThing member sarahzilkastarke
9/11 really? can authors still find nothing better to write about?

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".
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LibraryThing member mojacobs
David ("Dai") Dando is a young Southern Welshman, working in the office of a building society. After an evening in the pub, he takes Fred Peregrine home with him, an old age pensioner who has missed the last bus home and, looking a bit forlorn and out of it, reminds Dai of his Dad. But in the morning, Fred has disappeared. He turns up drowned and David is feeling guilty: should he have done more?
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
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LibraryThing member tmannix
If you like character studies (like Three Junes) then you may enjoy this. The author details the lives of three former Brown classmates as they near 30 in NYC. One is a beautiful, unaccomplished daughter of a well-know intellectual. One is an underemployed, man-about-town gay guy looking for love in all the wrong places. And the third is a striving, TV producer woman who ends up having a doomed affair. The plot is secondary. Really, the focus is on their ideas about each other, the opposite sex, their hopes, and their own demons. It's been called a comedy of manners. Well, kind of. But give me Jane Austen over this any day. I guess, ultimately, that I just didn't like these people. I did enjoy some minor characters (the drop-out nephew, the intellectual father, the creepy fiance). But where is this book going? Have to say I did not like the ending (touted as being great). What a cop-out.… (more)
LibraryThing member CasualFriday
If you’re a reader who has to like the characters to like a book, you might want to skip Claire Messud's The Emperor’s Children. It concerns a bunch of whining, arrogant Manhattanites, in the months before September 11, all convinced of their intellectual superiority and blissfully unaware of their class privilege – not, not unaware; completely aware but unconcerned about it. That said, I did like this book, and I came to care about these characters and their self-imposed crises. An engrossing read.… (more)
LibraryThing member BobNolin
Mainstream novel that got tons of airplay on NPR. Very well written, as advertised, and an interesting story. Some of the sentences—written like this with deeply nested clauses, of which there were too godawful many – seemed rather overdone, but they sure did make me concentrate. A mannered style, I think. What do I know? I was an art major. Based on the story and its non-genreness, you’d think I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, but it was surprisingly good.… (more)
LibraryThing member karieh
It's hard to read, and obviously to write, any book that takes place in the New York of September 2001. Ultimately, no matter what the purported subject matter of the book, the story ends up being about that day, that event. The writer runs the risk of being accused of either including 9/11 to make a political statement or alternatively, if the author ignores the tragedy, s/he can be accused of minimizing what happened. It's a lose/lose situation.

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….
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LibraryThing member literarysarah
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I'm an educated, almost-30-year-old woman who moved from a small town in the middle of nowhere to the city that made me love this story about three educated, 30-year-old friends trying to make their way in New York. They're consumed with questions about entitlement and family relationships, truth and journeys. Will this resonate with people who haven't lived in our decade? I don't know. For me, though, it was an extremely powerful examination of the things that obsess us.… (more)
LibraryThing member idiotgirl
Listened to this as an audiobook. I did enjoy the book. Various strands of folks, many from small towns coming into New York. Goes through 9/11. Very well done. I listened to Smiley's Duplicate Keys (also about folks from the sticks in New York) right after this. The Messud book is definitely the best. But I'd recommend the juxtaposition of the two. Smiley's an earlier book. Certainly not as ambitious as Messud's.… (more)
LibraryThing member omniavanitas
For all the hype, this was a letdown. In terms of plot, it was a long, predictable setup with very little payoff at the end. The dialog was a big weakness. Each character had the same bizarre speech pattern, with certain jarring words used again and again in casual speech. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high.
LibraryThing member bethmal
This book was like a watered down version of sex in the city. Not the greatest although I did finish it.
LibraryThing member harveywals
Long-listed for the Booker Prize, I had high hopes for this book. About halfway through, it does get really interesting, and I like the way CM works 9/11 into the story. But the first half is like so many other Manhattan stories, same intellectual elite and artsy characters. Worth reading overall and well-written, but first half could have been better conceived.… (more)
LibraryThing member mfeldman51
This book was a great disappointment. It wasn't the narcissism of the characters--after all, Mrs. Bennet is self-absorbed. It wasn't the utilization of 9/11 as a plot device--that was actually merciful, since it brought the book to a close. No, it was the way the author, as she shuttled among the inner thoughts of all of her characters (each chapter is about a particular character), managed to make them all one-dimensional: the Scotch-Drinking Public Intellectual; the Daughter Living in the Shadow of Her Father; the Young Professional; the Dowdy Teacher from Upstate New York Where It Snows A Lot.… (more)
LibraryThing member aemurray
Maybe I didn't give this book a chance, but it was trite and stereotypical in the first page and a half.
LibraryThing member LibrarysCat
I must admit that I had to get out pen and paper to make a few diagrams about who was related to who and how. Perhaps this is how we get to know people, even in writing! Because after I had it figured out, I had to keep reading. The characters are so engaging. Because I have never been to New York, I enjoyed the ride as well as the characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member citygirl
A trio of 30-year friends in Manhattan who are starting to realize that they need to do something; the father of one, a famous writer/pundit who casts a large shadow; a callow 20-year-old autodidact who fancies himself intellectual enough to take on his uncle, the pundit. Watch them entangle each other and themselves in a fascinating web of unfulfilled dreams, romantic ambitions and professional struggles until a horrific event finally provides a brutal clarity and varying degrees of resolution for each. Great characterizations, interesting story. Couldn't put it down after I got past the first 50 or so pages.… (more)
LibraryThing member phillyexpat
I've read plenty of woebegone 20/30 something lit, so I'm tough to please. That said, this was still not good. The characters were universally spoiled and bland. They were unlikeable, but not in such a way that might make them interesting. And the climax was pretty awful.
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
A long but good story about the children of a well-known writer, his wife, and his children's friends as their lives intersect, climaxing on 9/11 at the end as it shows the impact on their lives. It was slightly more "telling" than "showing," but it kept my interest nevertheless - and I'd like to read other books by her.
LibraryThing member benparish
A beautiful book, filled with long, flowing sentences and gorgeous dialogue. I devoured this book, and kept wanting more. However, the ending left a rather bitter taste in my mouth, which is the only downfall of the book. It should have made it to at least the Booker short-list.
LibraryThing member dreamreader
When I heard Maureen Corrigan review Claire Messud's work on NPR, I wanted to be sure to read and finish this book by the anniversary of 9/11. I did so just an hour ago, and still have my breath taken away by her astonishingly masterful rendition of characters, with complex interior lives, leading up to and shortly following that day. Marina, Danielle, and Julius are the thirty-year-old friends around whom we are led to believe the book focuses. However, this is young Frederick "Bootie" Tubb's story through and through, as we gradually learn the roles those three friends, as well as all others in the book, have in shaping his inexorable development as Messud's protagonist. At times the writing - filled with more interior rather than overt dialogue - can be challenging. But if one rereads such passages, it's clear they could not have been written otherwise. There will surely be comparisons to Bonfire of the Vanities, The Corrections, and perhaps Between Two Rivers (deserving of a much wider audience than it's had) - but as a literary memorial to New York and its culture before 9/11, and as a work of breathtaking truth about human relationships, The Emperor's Children is in a class of its own.… (more)
LibraryThing member TurboBookSnob
Claire Messud's novel, The Emperor's Children, follows the lives of three New Yorkers, best friends since they were at Brown together, from March through November in 2001.

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.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
The Emperor's Children is an intellectual miasma about the superficiality of the privileged classes - and the subsequent collision of values between the haves and have nots. Set in New York City in 2001, the book explores the lives of five major characters: Marina - a rich and spoiled pseudo-journalist; Julius - a gay, confused free lance critic; Danielle - a television producer with attitude; Frederick "Bootie" Tubb - an idealistic and slightly creepy college drop out; and Murray Thwaite - a middle aged, liberal "emperor" who has made a name in journalism. The novel is narrated in alternating points of view and spans a period of half a year, tying together (with an artistic flair) the rather superficial threads of each character's motivations and lives. None of these characters is especially likable, but all are compulsively readable.

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.

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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
This novel opens in the spring of 2001 and examines the undirected lives of several wealthy New Yorkers. The characters are not very likeable, but the plot is interesting, and I enjoyed the richly drawn characterization. Eventually, the book bogs down and may be a bit too long.
LibraryThing member george.d.ross
In many ways, a pleasure to read -- populated by wry, more-or-less witty characters and composed in elegantly wrought sentences (although Ms. Messud could use a brush up on the subjunctive mood). Too bad the silly, melodramatic ending casts such a pall over an otherwise charming book. When it comes to fiction, personal catastrophes are infinitely more fascinating than global ones.

Similar in structure and theme to Alan Hollinghurt's Line of Beauty, but not quite as perfect.
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