“The Emperor’s Children” by Claire Messud

“The Emperor’s Children” by Claire Messud (2006) – 431 pages

 I’ve been reading Claire Messud’s novels from the very start of her career with “When the World was Steady’, then ‘The Last Life’, then ‘The Hunters’.  I admit I was late in getting to “The Emperor’s Children”, not because I ever intended not to read it, but being a bigger book than her others, it took me a few years to work it in.  There is an articulate effervescent quality to her writing that makes reading her novels a pleasure.   

 “The Emperor’s Children” is a novel about the New York publishing life.  Most of the characters in the novel are involved in the publishing business in one way or another.   I got the impression that Claire Messud could take any small group of disparate characters and make a fascinating novel out of their lives.  Messud has the literary bona fides, yet her novels are a lot of fun to read, and I noticed that ‘The Emperor’s Children’ made it to the best-sellers lists which is quite an accomplishment for a literary writer. Of the characters in “The Emperor’s Children”, there is the famous journalist Murray Thwaite, his beautiful daughter Marina who is writing a book, her best friend Danielle Minkoff, their gay friend Julius who also writes columns, and aspiring publishing magnate Ludovic Seeley from Australia.  Finally there is Bootie Tubb who Murray hires as his young aide-de-camp, because Bootie is his nephew and has been at loose ends since he dropped out of college.  The characters in this small group interact in various combinations in various settings.  This novel has no overriding large ideas; you read this book purely because you become fascinated with these people.    

 For most of the novel nothing momentous occurs, but Claire Messud is good at writing dialogue that moves the separate stories along and the stories held my interest throughout.  The dialogue does not draw attention to itself; it’s not the kind of dialogue where I want to quote outstanding nuggets of repartee.  Instead it is the kind of dialogue that draws you into the story of these individuals without you even realizing it.       

 The novel takes place in 2001, and it culminates in the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, and after that everything for everyone in New York changes.

 I will continue to read Claire Messud, because she is one of the best novelists around, and sentence-for-sentence her writing is never less than fascinating.  She is confident enough so that her writing doesn’t have to unnaturally call attention to itself.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Ah Tony, I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it but must say it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way some books do. I’ve never really come across any others of her books and may not get to read any in the near future but what other would you recommend?


  2. Hi WhisperingGums,
    It says in Wiki that Claire Messud grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada, so she does have an Australia connection. I’d recommend her book of two novellas, “The Hunters”, because both are excellent, and being a quite short book a reader would not have to make a large time commitment.
    I suppose it was her first book ‘When the World was Steady’ that won me over to her style of writing.


  3. I’m going to have to vehemently disagree with your review on this one – I hated The Emperor’s Children on a level that few books have successfully matched. I didn’t like the characters (all so presumptuous, so cocky, so… similarly fake), I didn’t like the non-existent plot, and I didn’t like the grossly overwritten style. Bootie was the only character I cared a whit about and he ended up pissing me off so much that I finished the book with an angry sigh of disgust.

    You’re right – the only reason to read Messud’s novel is because you care about the characters’ lives. I didn’t. At all. I thought the characterization was lazy and that the writing didn’t make up for it (if anything, hindering it).

    But hey: diversity in opinion is what makes life interesting, right?


    • Hi Biblibio,
      Thank you, I treasure your opposing viewpoints on these books.
      I do have a defense of ‘The Emperor’s Children’. It goes as follows.
      The world is full of annoying people. It could even be said that each person including ourselves is annoying in their own way. The most usual ways that people are annoying is that they are too shallow and self-serving. I agree with you that all the characters in ‘The Emperor’s Children’ are annoying; the novel would not have been realistic otherwise. And I can easily see that Murray, Marina, Danielle, Ludovic, Julius, and Booty are all annoying. In a way, I prefer it this way rather than having one super-heroic person who is the main protagonist which is the way so many novels are written.
      The nice thing about Messud’s writing is that she held my interest even with all these shallow, self-serving, annoying people. Yes, the book is more a slice-of-life rather than any progressing plot. I felt the book was very inconclusive much like life itself. I did not find the characterization or writing lazy.


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