four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
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A-Emperor’s ChildrenIn a social satire for the 21st century, Claire Messud follows three friends, all Brown University graduates approaching 30, looking to make their mark as the cultural elite of a new generation. Marina, the beautiful daughter of Murray Thwaite—journalist, social fixture, activist, and the emperor of the book’s title—struggles to finish a book on children’s clothing fashions and society from her parents’ Upper West Side enclave; Danielle, a documentary maker, and Julius, a freelance critic for the Village Voice, round out the group. The three fight to maintain their identity from interlopers in a post-9/11 world that calls into question the pretense and entitlement of privilege.
Knopf. 448 pages. $25. ISBN: 030726419X

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Messud’s prose is whorled and Jamesian, of a syntactical complexity that only a confident stylist could handle. … Among its many pleasures, this novel indisputably reminds us of one truth that cannot be declared fungible: the obdurate reality of the human imagination." Meghan O’Rourke

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Claire Messud is a masterful writer of displacement, alienation, and loneliness. … She writes with wit, intelligence and flawless style of predicaments and people both ordinary and extraordinary, making them sympathetic and believable." Valerie Ryan

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Her vivid, juicy writing ensures an exhilarating read throughout, but it also demands that we continually scrutinize and reconsider the details. Everyone and everything is not as it seems on the surface." Elysa Gardner

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Her distinctive prose style—consisting of long, complex sentences crammed with details, pauses and qualifications—reminds one of an updated, breathless Henry James. … In her modern-Jamesian way, Ms. Messud has composed a comedy of manners, a satire on journalism and misplaced ambition, and a probing, sometimes poignant, drama about confused urban lives." Merle Rubin

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Her eye is keen for the elaborate tableau she’s constructed. … But such sharpness of vision can’t quite compensate for a hollowness to the greater story." Gail Caldwell

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Her writing is so sure-handed that she doesn’t even stumble on the hurdle of the Sept. 11 attacks (although the book ends too abruptly thereafter), and her exploration of entitlement is both witty and astute." Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

Claire Messud, the author of PEN/Faulkner Award finalists When the World Was Steady (1995), a novel, and The Hunters (2001), a collection of novellas, delivers a powerful, stylistically complex narrative that explores New York society from the inside out. More than one critic compared Messud’s prose to that of Henry James, American modernist and novelist of manners at the turn of the last century. The technique translates well into fiction that uses the last days of relative innocence before 9/11 and the chaotic immediate aftermath as its backdrop. The novel’s texture, multiple layers digging deep beneath and exposing society in such captivating detail, comes from Messud’s ability to create dramatic tension even while writing pointed social satire.