Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Emperor's Children

Three disaffected Manhattanites, Danielle, Julian, and Marina are pushing thirty and officially beyond the follies of youth. They’ve been friends since college, and though we never see them in their collegiate days, we get the distinct impression that none has grown much since then. Danielle’s professional time is spent at a production company where she suggests pieces on mass market-repellent topics that will never be picked up; her personal efforts, meanwhile, focus heavily on self-sabotaging relationships. Julian, fancying himself fashionable and influential, writes the occasional movie review for The Village Voice in between secret and, in his mind, shameful stints temping. Marina, based mostly on her good looks and literary sensation father, has been signed to write a book about children’s fashion. Unfortunately, her interest in the topic lasted about as long as it took her to spend the advance money. If pressed, none of the three could articulate what they want, but they all believe they deserve it, whatever it is. Adding to this mix are Marina’s father, Murray Thwaite; cousin, Frederick (Bootie) Tubb; and beau, Ludo. They circle around her as if in orbit, reinforcing her notion that she is the center of the universe.

Very few of these characters are actually likeable, which made for a sometimes trying 500 plus pages. That said, Messud is a gifted writer and has populated her novel with an interesting if not enjoyable cast of characters. And it is their selfishness and poor decision making that makes them disconcertingly real. Messud interestingly juxtaposes her authentic characters with their internal fantasies. Though not fantastic in the Heavenly Creatures sense, each of the characters inhabit a world of their own imagining and buy into the myths surrounding them: the myths of New York as some kind of intellectual and publishing shangri-la, of infallible family heroes, that love and desire can actually change people’s natures. It’s the crumbling of these fantasies, not surprisingly, that drive the novel’s central conflicts.

The timeframe and structure of The Emperor’s Children makes it clear that September 11th will play a role in the climax, and the suspense comes from wondering just how each character will be affected. And, as in reality and most good books, there are surprises along the way.