Claire Messud’s fourth novel, The Emperor’s Children, begins at a precarious moment in history—after the burst of the 1990s economic bubble and before September 11. At age 30, her three central characters also face a void—they are no longer young, but not quite grown-up. Danielle is a television producer who longs to create stories on weighty topics but instead covers liposuction. Julius is a book critic for The Village Voice (hey!) who, despite his status as a minor celebrity, secretly temps in his one good suit to pay rent on his Lower East Side hovel. Marina is the beautiful daughter of a famous writer, who has received glamorous editing jobs and a lucrative book contract mostly for being the beautiful daughter of a famous writer. But now she is unemployed and living at her parents’ Central Park West apartment with her unfinished manuscript.
Into this fold comes Ludovic Seeley, a smarmy wonderboy magazine editor who promises that his journal’s “cultural exposés” will shake up the arts scene by asking such incisive questions “like, is PEN really a worthwhile institution . . . is Matthew Barney a fraud[?]” But his primary target is Marina’s father, a revered ’60s-era writer who spends most of his days delivering pat opinions to magazines and television news programs. As Danielle observes of Seeley, “he appeared so powerfully to disdain the older man, yet clamored to meet him.”
To members of the media elite and proletariat, such characters may seem overly familiar and noxious (well, except for the Voice critic). But Messud portrays even the most loathsome New York type with depth and compassion. Even with Marina, lightning rod for schadenfreude that she is, the author never takes cheap shots (though Marina is the subject of a deliciously wicked “Vows” parody). Deftly switching between six points of view, Messud crafts a gripping story of clashing ambitions, compromised loyalties, and the love/hate relationship between the powerless and the powerful. As the characters hurl toward that terrible September day, the narrative goes beyond mere social satire, deepening into a hypnotic, moving read.