Claire Messud’s highly praised novel about the aimless wanderings of New York City’s young, intellectual, and elite is both humorous and emotionally engrossing. Messud’s three main characters met while studying at Brown University: Marina, the aspiring writer and daughter of an established literary icon, Julius, the perpetually temping Village Voice has-been, and Danielle, the studio-dwelling melancholy. Nearly ten years later, all three characters are approaching 30 with little to show for their Ivy League education, their developed opinions, and privilege.
Marina, the daughter of pretentious journalist and novelist Murray Thwaite, was offered a book deal at 23 to do an analytical study of children’s attire as a reflection of cultural attitudes. Seven years later, Marina has yet to make any progress on the book and flummoxes about her parents’ uptown apartment, contemplating getting a job but fearing that it would ultimately make her “too ordinary.” She attends parties on her father’s arm, defers to him on all things remotely literary, and generally invites the reader to implement a Freudian interpretation of their relationship at every turn.
Julius sleeps with his boss, moves in with him, then proceeds to destroy the relationship with a string infidelities. He too is jobless. Danielle spends much of her time at Marina’s house, catching up with the parents of her college friend as they still envision her as the over-zealous 22-year-old with a penchant for smart ideas. They hug her, pat her on the head, and have her over for dinner often. But when Murray, Marina’s father, asks Danielle to meet him on the sly to discuss Marina’s crumbling literary career, Murray and Danielle fall into the throes of an illicit, borderline incestuous affair.
Messud is a detailed writer with a fondness, and a talent, for character portraits. In The Emperor’s Children, her protagonists are drawn out in outstanding detail; they could very well function as stories of their own regardless of the larger plot that unfolds. Her tendency to overwrite their personas, ticks, and quirks can be tedious at times, but does reflect a more traditional and time-honored approach to character description that goes absent from many contemporary novels. Messud’s voice is both charmingly chatty and uncompromisingly literary — a rare find, as well as nuanced. She captures many moments between her Woody Allen-reminiscent characters with fine overtones.
However, her comment on the unsavory intersection of privilege and intellectualism is resounding and clear. By weaving the stories of Marina, Julius, and Danielle together into a complex friendship of mutual entitlement and respective purposelessness, Messud offers readers an intricate peek into the downside to being young and brilliant.
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