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The Emperor's Children

by Claire Messud

A cover which depicts the Manhattan skyline has a lot to live up to: itís an image that invites expectations and, fortunately, THE EMPERORíS CHILDREN delivers. Itís a big book, ambitious and thoughtful, elegantly written with a narrative that packs a smart, contemporary, slick and ironic punch.

Claire Messud charts the lives of a group of friends, Marina, Danielle and Julius, in the months leading up to September 11, 2001. Marina is the daughter of revered writer, cultural commentator and aging Lothario, Murray Thwaite; Danielle is her clever college friend, now a television producer; and Julius is their gay friend from the wrong side of the tracks, fed up of living by his wit. All three have now hit thirty and feel the pressure to establish themselves and Messud, with her customary 20/20 insight and perfect-pitch dialogue, draws us deep into the little dramas of their self-absorbed and privileged worlds.

All is going well until the arrival of Ludovic Seely, an effete Australian concerned with establishing a new cultural magazine, and Marinaís cousin, Bootie, an overweight undergraduate from New Jersey. Disillusioned with university, Bootie goes to New York hoping to learn intellectual rigour from his uncle, Murray. Despite his up-country gaucheness, he is welcomed into the family and Murray, recognising some of himself in his young nephew, agrees to act as mentor and employs him as a sort of assistant. However, when his hero doesnít live up to his exacting standards, Bootie takes it upon himself to expose the real Murray Thwaite in a spectacular way.

Although the satire is sharp, Messud is forgiving of her characters and portrays their failings in all their contingent humanity and moral complexity. Marina is trying to win her fatherís approval with a book of her own, the hilariously awful, The Emperorís Children have no Clothes, about the history of childrenís fashion. This is a clever conceit that allows the central themes of authenticity and sham, meaning and surface, public and private, Ďheroesí and acolytes, to bounce back and forth throughout the narrative, creating a multi-layered contemporary fable.

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