Claire Messud has a knack for conveying her characters’ self-doubt and anguish, even as they fail to see it themselves. The theme of facades is woven throughout The Emperor's Children. This fat novel follows three friends on the cusp of 30 in New York City. Marina is living with her wealthy parents, working on a long-awaited book about children’s clothes. Julius, a struggling magazine writer, is cheating on his new boyfriend. And Danielle, a documentarian, begins an affair with Marina’s father, Murray Thwaite.
Murray made a name for himself as a left-wing journalist supporting laborers and civil rights groups back in the sixties. He has since grown apathetic and obese as he works on a secret tome, How to Live. I saw him as metaphor for America -- so wrapped up in his own self-righteousness, he misses the opportunity to support a younger generation of artists.
Immersed in the details of their lives, I was shocked when 9/11 exploded onto the page, destroying a perfectly lovely September morning. All the characters are put in their place as the towers fall, and yet no one seems to use the moment for introspection or self-analysis. “And Murray, whose greatness lay not in his words or his actions but simply in his capacity to convince others of his greatness…Murray who was emperor in this place of pretense—surely even Murray, above all Murray, would be toppled by this.”
But is he?