Sunday, September 2, 2007

Book review: The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

I'll probably only review books that I really like -- I'll tell you what I liked, and if it sounds appealing to you, you might like the book as well.

The Emperor's Children is a model of character development, and has an omniscient narrator, which I love. This narrator, this author, seems to understand everything about everybody, and has a real eye and ear for people's motivations, behavior, and foibles. None of the characters are perfect, here, but all are understandable and perfect in their own way.

It's hard to sum up what the book is "about" -- events, some romantic, some work-related, some violent, befall the characters and have an impact on them. I think the most appealing aspect for me was that everyone's errors are really understandable in light of who they are and where they've come from.

The title, of course, refers to the sartorially challenged emperor of the fairy tale, and at first I thought it meant that the children of the "emperor" -- in this case, Murray Thwaite, a cultural critic who isn't necessarily wiser than the rest of the culture -- were all fakes and phonies. But now I think it's more that Messud shows them all as they are, alone in their rooms, stripped of the pretense we all wear to appear in the world.

As Murray's daughter, Marina, his nephew, Bootie, and Marina's friends, Danielle and Julius move through the book, all are making great efforts to grow up and find themselves. It's like a coming of age book, but most of them have already "come of age" -- they are taking on the next phase of their adult lives, most of them for the first time becoming disillusioned with Thwaite and the culture he represents -- which, much to Messud's credit, she herself does not condemn, representing this disillusionment as a necessary part of the growth of a new generation. Murray is not a one-sided figure of fun; he is, in his own way, as sympathetic a character as any of the "young people."

One of my favorite parts of the book was an episode in which Danielle muses on laughter and how it changes in adulthood. There are many such touches in the book -- many observations about modern and not-so-modern life that are especially apt.

I had a bit of trouble getting into this book at first -- the characters didn't seem very likeable -- but soon I was mesmerized. I highly recommend it.


Melissa Kirsch said...

Thank you for reminding me of Murray Thwaite. I really loved that character, and Danielle, alone in her room. The first time she describes her at sunset with the Rothkos, it's the last paragraph of an early chapter I think, it's really lovely. What did Danielle say about laughter?

I like this book because it felt large to me, sweeping and grand in a way that most American novels aren't. It felt very British and I find myself recommending "The Line of Beauty" to people who enjoyed TEC.

Catherine said...

Yes, I liked Danielle and the Rothkos too. The part about laughter was kind of sad and poignant -- she's thinking of how long it's been since she had a real gut-wrenching, laughing until you cry laugh with anyone. She surmises that this phenomenon just lessens over time, and theorizes that perhaps that kind of laughter is a function of immaturity. Which, if true, says something about you and me, ma'am.

I'll put "The Line of Beauty" on my list right now.