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1 Remote Warehouse Literature- A to Z

The Emperor's Children

by

The Emperor's Children Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

1. At the novels onset, most of the characters are outside New York: Danielle in Australia, pursuing an idea for a story and finding someone to have a crush on; Marina at her parents summer house in Stockbridge, accompanied by Julius; and Bootie in his mothers house in upstate New York. Why might Messud have chosen to begin in this manner? At what other points in the book do the characters leave the city and with what results?

2. Messud introduces her characters through their environments: the womblike bathroom where Bootie soaks in hot water and serious literature; the Thwaites resplendent Central Park West apartment; and Danielles pristine, aesthetically climate-controlled studio. What do these spaces tell us about their occupants? Why might the author have used this rather old-fashioned way of ushering us into a novel set in 2001? Where else does she employ the techniques of an earlier age of literature?

3. Which of the novels characters strikes you as its moral center? Is it Bootie, who comes to New York with such high ideals and easily rankled feelings? Is it Danielle, who has lived there long enough to feel at home there but who still sees its pretensions and absurdities? With which of these characters is the reader meant to identify? Whose judgments seem the most reliable? And what flaws or blind spots afflict even him or her?

4. Julius is obsessed with the characters of Pierre and Natasha from War and Peace, longing to be the sparkling Natasha but fearing hes really more like the brooding, self-conscious Pierre. Bootie is constantly reading Emerson. Which of the other characters has an emblematic book, and what role do those books play in their lives, in the way they see the world, and, of course, the way they see themselves? Is Julius anything like Pierre or Natasha? Does Bootie really live up to Emersons criterion of genius? At what points do they similarly misread other characters?

5. In addition to reading, many of Messuds people are also engaged in writing: Marina has her book-in-progress and Murray has his (which hes thinking of calling How to Live), and Bootie has his essay on Murray (and Murrays book). What is their relationship to their writing? What do they hope to achieve through it? How do other characters respond to it? Does Messud give us any indication as to which of these characters work is good (or genuine) and which is failed or fraudulent?

6. Almost everybody in The Emperors Children envies, and is intimidated by, somebody else. Julius, for instance, is in awe of Marinas self-confidence and envious of her sense of entitlement. Marina is cowed by her father. And poor Bootie is a virtual pressure cooker of indiscriminate awe and resentment. What sort of things do Messuds characters feel insecure about? Is there anyone in the book who seems truly comfortable with him or herself or any relationship that seems to be conducted by equals? Would you say that awe and envy are this novels dominant emotions?

7. Marina, we learn, frequently accompanies Murray to public functions, and is sometimes mistaken for his “trophy wife.” [35] Does their relationship strike you as incestuous (in which case its a brilliant stroke of Messud to make Ludovic call her “her fathers Anna Freud [110]”)? Compare Marinas unfolding relationship with Ludovic to her bond with her father. Do you think that Ludovic-incidentally, the only major character who is seen entirely from the outside, through the eyes of others-really loves Marina or is merely using her, and if so for what purpose?

8. Just as Marina has symbolically taken over her mothers role, “Danielle had the peculiar sensation of having usurped her friends role in the Thwaite family, and more than that, of having usurped it at some moment in the distant past, a decade or more ago: she felt like a teenager. . . , and she was suddenly, powerfully aware of the profound oddity of Marinas present life, a life arrested at, or at least returned to, childhood.” [41] How many of the other characters seem similarly suspended? Which of them seems like a full-grown adult, and what does it mean to be an adult in the scheme of this novel? If Danielle has indeed usurped Marinas place, what is the significance of her affair with Marinas father? Which of the other characters takes on another characters role, and for what reasons?

9. When pressed to take a job, Marina confesses, “I worry that that will make me ordinary, like everybody else.” [67] To what extent are other characters possessed by the same fear, and how do they defend themselves against it? Do they have a common idea of what constitutes ordinariness? Can ordinariness even exist in a social world in which everyone is constantly, feverishly striving to be unique? Is it possible that Marina is just lazy and prevaricating in her charming way?

10. With his high-flown ambitions, his indolence, and his appalling sense of hygiene, Bootie initially seems like a comic character. But in the course of the novel Messuds portrait of him darkens until he comes to seem either sinister or tragic-perhaps both. How does she accomplish this? Which other characters does she gradually reveal in a different light? Compare Messuds shifting portrayal of Bootie to her handling of Julius and Danielle. In what ways do they too evade or defy the readers initial expectations about them?

11. Ludovic repeatedly declares that he wants to make a revolution with his magazine The Monitor, but what is the magazine supposed to be about? Lest we think that The Emperors Children is merely a satire of the New York media, what other highly touted ideas in this novel turn out to be light on substance, and what does this suggest about the value of ideas at this historical moment?

12. On similar lines, both Ludovic and Bootie denounce Murray as a fraud while Bootie in particular prides himself on his sincerity. But is such sincerity a good thing? What other characters embrace that virtue, and with what results? Compare Booties frank literary assessment of his uncle with Murrays frank critique of his daughters manuscript, or his even franker response to Booties essay. When in this novel does honesty turn out to be a pretext for something else? And when do subterfuge and deception turn out to be acts of kindness?

13. Murray feels that his mothers efforts at improving him succeeded only in “turning her boy into someone, something, she couldnt understand.” [123] By contrast, he thinks, Marina has been paralyzed by the very expansiveness of her upbringing. What does this novel have to say about parents and children? Which of the Emperors children has proved a disappointment to his or her parents? Does any parent in this novel (Murray, Annabel, Judy, Randy) truly understand his or her offspring? And is it good for said offspring to be understood?

14. Some of Messuds characters begin the novel in a state of happiness and others attain it, but nearly all of them see their happiness threatened or even shattered. How does this come about? Which of them is the victim of outside forces and which is responsible for his or her fall? How would you describe this novels vision of happiness? Considering that the typical comedy has a happy (or happy-ish) ending, what do you make of the fact that so many of Messuds characters end up bereft or disappointed?

15. Among this novels many characters, one has to include the character of New York City. How does Messud bring the city to life? Compare Murrays New York with Marinas and Danielles, Booties and Juliuss. What is it that draws a Bootie Tubb and a Julius Clarke, a Danielle Minkoff and a Ludovic Seeley to prove themselves in New York?

16. What role do the events of September 11, 2001, play in The Emperors Children? Are there other points when history-or, put another way, reality-impinges on the safe and mostly privileged world its characters inhabit? What is the significance of Annabel Thwaites client DeVaughn or results of Julius and Davids affair? Does the ending make sense when compared with the rest of the novel?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 4 comments:

Mary Moore, September 14, 2007 (view all comments by Mary Moore)
A fascinating, moving book with characters you're glad aren't your friends; but you can't help being fascinated by. Upper middle-class and bewildered by the world not being simply handed to them, they approach thirty almost desperate for some sign they're as important and gifted as they believe.

The first post 9/11 novel that has truly gripped me. Highly recommended.
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(17 of 33 readers found this comment helpful)
Adam, July 13, 2007 (view all comments by Adam)
Fantastic. A little slow to start, but, as you get to know the characters intimately and the book picks up steam, it becomes impossible to put down. The plot is relatively simple, and, while it's easy to guess where many of the stories are headed (with exceptions), it's fascinating to watch the thoughts and actions of the characters react and change as the book rumbles toward its inevitable end.
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(10 of 20 readers found this comment helpful)
Joan Bregger, May 31, 2007 (view all comments by Joan Bregger)
Dense, but clear, prose describes the angst of three thirtyish New Yorkers--Marina, the dilletante daughter of a pundit; Danielle, a documentary film producer; and Julius, a caustic film reviewer. All are casting about for more meaning--or better living conditions--and further complications appear by way of journalist Ludo, Marina's father Murray, and Marina's young, confused cousin, Frederick.
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(16 of 25 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780307264190
Author:
Messud, Claire
Publisher:
Knopf
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
New york (n.y.)
Subject:
Love stories
Copyright:
Publication Date:
August 29, 2006
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
9.58x6.50x1.12 in. 1.75 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Morning News Tournament » Tournament of Books 2007
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Emperor's Children Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$9.95 In Stock
Product details 448 pages Alfred A. Knopf - English 9780307264190 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Marina Thwaite, Danielle Minkoff and Julian Clarke were buddies at Brown, certain that they would soon do something important in the world. But as all near 30, Danielle is struggling as a TV documentary maker, and Julius is barely surviving financially as a freelance critic. Marina, the startlingly beautiful daughter of celebrated social activist, journalist and hob-nobber Murray Thwaite, is living with her parents on the Upper West Side, unable to finish her book — titled The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes (on how changing fashions in children's clothes mirror changes in society). Two arrivals upset the group stasis: Ludovic, a fiercely ambitious Aussie who woos Marina to gain entrée into society (meanwhile planning to destroy Murray's reputation), and Murray's nephew, Frederick 'Bootie' Tubb, an immature, idealistic college dropout and autodidact who is determined to live the life of a New York intellectual. The group orbits around the post-September 11 city with disconcerting entitlement — and around Murray, who is, in a sense, the emperor. Messud, in her fourth novel, remains wickedly observant of pretensions — intellectual, sexual, class and gender. Her writing is so fluid, and her plot so cleverly constructed, that events seem inevitable, yet the narrative is ultimately surprising and masterful as a contemporary comedy of manners." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "[A] riveting comedy of manners....Gradually, Messud...converts academic hairsplitting into a matter of larger consequence, extracting considerable suspense from the young cultural pretenders' attempts to topple the old guard and wrest an erotic prize." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review A Day" by , "We've all caught glimpses of them before, but Claire Messud has captured and pinned under glass members of a striking subspecies of the modern age: the smart, sophisticated, anxious young people who think of themselves as the cultural elite....If you're one of them or if you can't resist the delicious pleasure of pitying them, you'll relish every page of The Emperor's Children....The most remarkable quality of Messud's writing may be its uncanny blend of maturity and mirth. Somehow, she can stand in that chilly wind blowing on us all and laugh." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review
"Review" by , "Messud deftly paints the neurotic uncertainties of people who know they're privileged and feel sorry for themselves anyway; she makes her characters human....Intelligent, evocative and unsparing."
"Review" by , "Messud's comedy of manners is extremely well written and features characters that come alive....This wonderful read is an insightful look at our time and the decisions people make. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "Messud's ambitious, glamorous, and gutsy new novel, The Emperor's Children, is a leap forward, a marvel of bold momentum and kinetic imagination."
"Review" by , "Claire Messud is a novelist of unnerving talent....The Emperor's Children is a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11."
"Review" by , "Absorbingly intelligent....[Messud] writing is so sure-handed that she doesn't even stumble on the hurdle of the Sept. 11 attacks...and her exploration of entitlement is both witty and astute."
"Review" by , "Ms. Messud has composed a comedy of manners, a satire on journalism and misplaced ambition, and a probing, sometimes poignant, drama about confused urban lives."
"Review" by , "The novel surprises in so many ways. Most notably is the way that the story gets more and more interesting as it progresses. By the final chapters it becomes a page-turner, something rarely found in novels without detectives or CIA agents lurking about."
"Review" by , "If occasionally the reader feels suffocated inside the Thwaites' privileged bubble, the pleasures of Messud's prose are enlivening....You will not learn how to live from reading The Emperor's Children, but you will recognize the pulse of real life on every page."
"Review" by , "[T]he novel, for all its evident flaws...demonstrates Ms. Messud's growing range as a writer, her ability to shift gears effortlessly between the comic and the tragic, the satiric and the humane."
"Review" by , "A stinging portrait of life among Manhattan’s junior glitterati, [including] three best friends [who], a decade after they met at Brown, are finding it hard to be 30. . . . Messud deftly paints the neurotic uncertainties of people who know they're privileged and feel sorry for themselves anyway; she makes her characters human . . . Intelligent, evocative and unsparing." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Synopsis" by , A magnificent novel of fate and fortune — of love and friendship, family and secrets, of striving and glamour, disaster and promise — this is a tour de force that brings to life a city, a generation, and living in the moment.
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