Synopses & Reviews
From a writer "of near-miraculous perfection" (The New York Times Book Review
) and "a literary intelligence far surpassing most other writers of her generation" (San Francisco Chronicle
), The Emperor's Children
is a dazzling, masterful novel about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way and not in New York City.
There is beautiful, sophisticated Marina Thwaite an "It" girl finishing her first book; the daughter of Murray Thwaite, celebrated intellectual and journalist and her two closest friends from Brown, Danielle, a quietly appealing television producer, and Julius, a cash-strapped freelance critic. The delicious complications that arise among them become dangerous when Murray's nephew, Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, an idealistic college dropout determined to make his mark, comes to town. As the skies darken, it is Bootie's unexpected decisions and their stunning, heartbreaking outcome that will change each of their lives forever.
A richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune of innocence and experience, seduction and self-invention; of ambition, including literary ambition; of glamour, disaster, and promise The Emperor's Children is a tour de force that brings to life a city, a generation, and the way we live in this moment.
"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.)
"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)
"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." Library Journal
"Messud's ambitious, glamorous, and gutsy new novel, The Emperor's Children, is a leap forward, a marvel of bold momentum and kinetic imagination." Elle
"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." Meghan O'Rourke, The New York Times Book Review
"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." Christian Science Monitor
"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." Wall Street Journal
"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." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"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." Newsday
"[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." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"A stinging portrait of life among Manhattans 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
"[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." Elizabeth Judd, The Atlantic Monthly
(read the entire Atlantic Monthly review
"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
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.
About the Author
Claire Messud's first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her book of novellas, The Hunters, were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and an Editor's Choice at The Village Voice. All three books were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship, and is the current recipient of the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.
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.”  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 ”)? 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.”  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.”  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.”  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?
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are meant to enliven your groups discussion of The Emperors Children,
Claire Messuds richly plotted, densely populated comedy of manners and ideas. Like some of its high-profile antecedents, its set in New York City: not the august, whalebone-corseted New York of Edith Whartons The Age of Innocence
nor the brainy, feuding city of Saul Bellows Humboldts Gift,
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. Its 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 novels comedy arises from the misunderstandings between those characters who understand this and those who dont: The latter have their hearts broken.
At the novels 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 shes 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, Marinas father, an aging liberal journalist of lofty reputation and even higher self-estimation. Its he who is the Emperor of the novels title. Soon Murrays 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.
Its Booties arrival in New York that sets much of the novels events in motion. He gets a job as Murrays 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 Booties 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 books characters with whipped cream on their faces and comedies that leave them deeply, and sometimes painfully, changed, and The Emperors Children is one of those. Thanks to Claire Messuds deft grasp of character, her flawless eye for New Yorks social hierarchies, and her deliciously unscrolling sentences, her book also changes the reader.
Q: In THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN, the introduction of a few outsiders into the world of the main characters drastically alters the lives of everyone. What were their lives like before the appearance of Bootie and Ludovic Seeley on the scene?
Well, Marina had been living at home for the better part of a year, trying to get her book finished; and Julius and Danielle were living pretty much as they had done for some time, each in their apartment. But the three of them spent a lot of time together — more time than they do once the book is underway -- in the way very close, old friends do when they are single and childless.
Q: The first chapter is called “Our Chef is Very Famous in London”, which gets to the heart of things that a reputation one place may not carry to another. What made you decide to start the book with that?
Danielle — like Marina and Julius also, albeit in slightly different ways — is very much a New Yorker. Her whole sense of the world, post-college, has been focused entirely on New York. I wanted to begin the novel in a rare moment, for her, in which she has some perspective on her own life, some sense of its provincialism. All our lives are provincial, no matter where we live; but New Yorkers can often indulge the fantasy that they are exempt from this. It’s harder to do from the other side of the world.
Q: What is THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN about, to you? Where did the initial inspiration for the novel come from?
That’s a big question. I don’t think I have a simple answer. What’s it about? I hope it’s about what it’s like to be alive in a certain place in a certain time. It’s about a group of people with certain aspirations and expectations and limitations, and the way they contend with what is thrown at them. Probably in my mind it’s about ambition, and what it means, or meant, and didn’t, in that particular historical moment. And about confronting limitations. And about making a self. All those things. As for where the inspiration for the novel came from, it’s lost in the mists of time. I began the novel (with the same characters but in a different form) in early 2001, a long time ago; and later that year abandoned it, because it seemed impossible to continue. It took me a year or more to come back to it, after failing with a couple of other things; and by then it seemed to have an organic necessity, an urgency in my mind, that has kept me from worrying, ever since, about where the idea for it came from.
Q: Murray Thwaite is reminiscent of a few journalistic bigwigs… was there anyone in particular you wanted him to bring to mind? And if so, will you ever tell?
As anybody who writes fiction knows, it’s a magpie affair. To create a character, you take a shiny button here, a strand of hair there, a bit of tinsel from the garbage can, and build something which, you hope, will look like a person. All the characters in this book (and in my other books too) were created this way; and all of them — including Murray — contain elements of myself in them. I wouldn’t go so far as saying “Murray Thwaite, c’est moi”, but he certainly feels like a part of me.
Q: You live in Boston but chose to write a novel about New York City, focusing on its upper crust. Why this world?
I’ve only lived in Boston for a few years. I lived in DC before that. And London before that. It may seem illogical, then, to have chosen New York, but I feel as though it’s a picture of my parallel life, of a life I might have had. I went to college in Connecticut, and all my friends moved straight to New York. Most of them are still there. My parents also live in Connecticut; my dad was a commuter. All in all, I’ve spent a lot of time in New York. It was always the city towards which I turned. And the dynamics of a group of close friends from college — that’s also a world I know.
Q: We don’t really see the story from, say, Ludo’s perspective. Why?
Geez, would you want to? I shudder to think what the world looks like from Ludo’s perspective.
Q: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the characters here aren’t exactly warm, fuzzy, and loveable; many make some despicable decisions and/or comments in the course of the novel. What compelled you to write about such a lot?
I adamantly believe that characters should be interesting, rather than nice. I also believe that these guys, for all their faults and limitations, are no worse than most of us. If they were your cousins, you’d see them clearly and criticize them and still love them. That’s how I feel about them. I have no interest in sentimental, saccharine portrayals — life’s too short for untruths. I was just trying to portray people as I see them, motivated by conflicting impulses, given to shabby thoughts or actions, but not, for the most part, bad people.
Q: OK, so our heroes and heroines aren’t all bad–there’s an element of likeability there too! Do you have a favorite? If so, will you share him/her with us?
Ach. A parent mustn’t play favorites. I have a few, in fact. But I’d have to say I have a soft spot for Bootie.
Q: Did you set out writing THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN with the characters in mind, or did the plot form them? Is this usually the case as you write–and how does it affect the way your stories take shape?
Everything I write is different, so I can’t really generalize about where I begin. But character is very important to me — it’s why I write, I think; that and language. And if you really know a character, then you figure out how they would behave in a given situation. And the plot comes out of that, really. It’s about trying to observe your people closely, honestly, and without imposing your will artificially upon them. If you make a character do something that character wouldn’t do, your book is a fake.
Q: Our three main characters–Marina, Julius, and Danielle–are on the cusp of thirty. Do you see that age as the portal to true adulthood?
True adulthood? Show me a true adult! But I do think that in contemporary American society, among the bourgeoisie, many young adults aren’t forced fully to take on the mantle of adulthood in their twenties. It’s wrong to generalize; but for Marina, Julius and Danielle, at least, the combination of their vast ambition and their professional meandering leads them, at around 30, suddenly to feel it’s time to get their lives together, with a sort of panic they might not have felt if they’d noticed earlier how quickly time was passing.