Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud--a review

I love a good comedy of manners, which is why I can often be found re-reading Jane Austen when I’m not reading more recent novels. In The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud has created an entertaining, modern comedy of manners, a sharply observed portrait of vain, young Ivy League New Yorkers who believe themselves to be the cultural elite.

Marina Thwaite, Danielle Minkoff and Julius Clarke met at Brown, and now they struggle to make it in the rarefied world of the media. Danielle is a TV documentarian, and Julius a freelance critic, and Marina, beautiful daughter of celebrated journalist Murray Thwaite, is stymied trying to write a book in the shadow of her famous father. The fun starts when the snake-like Ludovic begins to court Marina with an eye to toppling her father from his pedestal as an icon, and when Murray’s nephew “Bootie”, an unrealistically idealistic autodidact, comes to town to try take the intellectual world by storm.

Particularly good are Messud’s depictions of pompous blowhard Murray Thwaite and his daughter, Marina, who has been paralyzed by his exalted status. I spent the first half of the book really disliking all of the characters, until I just let go and decided to enjoy disliking them--revel in it, in fact.

The action takes place in the months leading up to and just after 9/11. At first I thought the setting was gratuitous--the final plot twist depending on the attacks for its power—but later I decided that Messud was saying something more about our entitled society as a target.

This, of course, made me think about novelists using 9/11 as a setting. Clearly some feel compelled to. Has anybody done it well yet? I don't know, you tell me. The three others I've come up with are Wendy Wasserstein's Elements of Style
, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Julia Glass's The Whole World Over, none of which I have read. Anyone want to weigh in?

No comments: