Thursday, February 28, 2013

Literary Bite: The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud, is about three 30-year-old friends living in Manhattan. I really should have liked this book. It has all the components of a good read: moving plot, interesting (if not believable  characters, quality writing, and a decent ending. But ooooooooohhhhh mmmmmmmmmmm gggggggggg it was a slog. I just couldn’t get into it, and what should have taken me a week to read (it’s 430 pages) took me three!

I have a high tolerance/ not so secret love for pretentiously witty banter (what can I say? I was raised on West Wing and Gilmore Girls), but parts of this book are just too over the top, even for me. The characters' conversations feel so contrived and ridiculous –  I suppose that's part of the satire of the whole book, but it was too much.

The plot is about the three super-upper class friends who met at Brown, came to NYC in the ‘90s, but despite their “promise” and “talent” have struggled to find success by 30 in early 2001. Gag me. This is not revolutionary – what 20-somethings’ skills don’t exceed the demands of their job? And most people don’t have the luxury to complain about it from the comfort of their parents’ mansion on the Upper East Side.
  • “It all came down to entitlement, and one's sense of it. Marina, feeling entitled, never really asked herself if she was good enough. Whereas he, Julius, asked himself repeatedly, answered always in the affirmative, and marveled at the wider world's apparent inability to see the light. he would have to show them - of this he was ever more decided, with a flamelike conviction. But he was already thirty, and the question was how?” 
Because of this inane whinyness, none of the characters were likeable. Even Danielle, who is the Midwestern “more practical” one, is insufferably annoying (an affair with a married man = you did that to you, stop feeling sorry for yourself).

I understand that the book is about “the gap between the real and the perceived,” and “a stingingly observant novel about the facades of the chattering class.” Murray Thwaite (the father of one of the 30-year-olds) represents hypocritical 1960’s liberalism, and Seeley (his daughter’s boyfriend) represents “postmodernism and its assumption that truth is fungible.” (Thank you NYT for the analysis.)

I will give it this – The Emperor’s Children is a book worth analyzing and the questions it poses are legit. The writing is well-done and Messud seamlessly interlaces the various plotlines. I just didn’t enjoy it.