Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

Even if I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, this is a terrific book, beautifully written. It is the story of Murray and Annabel Thwaite, their daughter Marina and her friends Danielle and Julius, and Murray’s nephew Frederick. Murray is a journalist who has been successful though shallow, and Marina is following in his footsteps. Frederick, known as Bootie, has dropped out of college and would also like to emulate Murray, but he (along with Marina’s boss and husband Ludovic) manages to see through Murray and his disappointment drives him in another direction. Danielle, who at first seems interested in Ludovic, is actually drawn to Murray.

The novel is about generations, about rebellion. Succeeding generations challenge the past, revealing weaknesses in themselves at the same time. Danielle is interested in the idea of revolution, until the target of the revolution is the man she thinks she loves. Marina, who barely has the will to imitate her father, comes to his defense even while recognizing the validity of the attacks. Bootie tries twice to take on a new identity, so much does he wish to be free of the past. But none of them can be free of the past. The revolution isn’t possible. It all comes back to us.

Messud’s prose is wonderfully digressive. I heard her read from this novel on three separate occasions and so as I read it I could hear her voice and the way it shifts tone and speed as she moves through parentheticals and dependent clauses. There are examples on nearly every page, but here’s just one, chosen at random:
“Julius was not someone who still believed, the way Marina and even, to some degree, Danielle did, in a moral or intellectual value inherent in something that society did not want. He knew too well—he’d had to know it, ever since the days of Danville, Michigan—that if nobody wanted it, a thing—even genius, a word he had used unsparingly about himself in youth—was useless. But he couldn’t seem to gauge the connection between desire and reward. He knew how to create desire in others—desire for himself, that is—and in darker moments, of which there were plenty, he exploited that knowledge, because it made him feel better, and because he could. But he couldn’t figure out where desire (other people’s) turned to riches (for him).”

It is a book that is absolutely worth reading. And also check out this interview with Messud in LA Weekly.

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