Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

There's lots to like in this novel. Messud is exceptionally good at staying in the moment--paying close attention to the thoughts and actions of a character and slowing down real time via metaphor and language. What interested me most overall was how she takes the familiar structure of a group of friends who seemingly are going to add a new member to their midst, but she keeps the new member, Bootie in this case, outside the group (he never actually becomes their friend) so there is a constant tension between him and the members of the group. Each of the main characters has their own rise and fall of a story arc, but Bootie provides a structure for the whole novel--his exit from the group's midst makes for a very pleasing sense of closure at the end of the novel (just as his entrance made for a good beginning). I didn't quite buy the end, but that didn't seem to matter so much since I'd bought all the rest.

1 comment:

tn said...

There seemed to be little reason why this book found itself on any "best of the year" lists. Truly, it is a nice story of a group of fairly shallow characters populating the Upper West Side of New York, or characters with ambitions of same, but is it more than that? And, I shouldn't have been reading it at all, in that it takes place in the city where I lived with the ex and I've sworn off any book, movie or song that reminds me in any way of the life we led; however, the emperor's children as depicted were sufficiently unengaging and unworthy of respect that it seemed okay. Anyway, we lived on the lower east side and everyone knows UWS is a whole other universe.

In the end I did find the book useful in my own personal therapy. One character, Danielle, is an oddly attractive friend of the gorgeous, talented and lazy Marina, and Marina's father, an eminence gris or dirty old man depending on your politics develops a crush on her and then embarks on an affair with her. I run away from love stories at the best of times and certainly now, when the very thought is a dagger to my heart -- but this one was sufficiently sordid it had an appeal to my cynical side. And, as per the older man in my life, Marina's father does away with poor old Danielle when she becomes just a tad too inconvenient. He slips away and into his big grown up life as though there were nothing else to do, no greater truth to own up to beyond the one he invented for himself, no regard for the "truth" he devised with her. He lacked courage, he lacked charm, he lacked anything approaching a backbone and yet anyone looking upon him would see a very big man on campus....and this is a curious scenario that I find often in my own life and quite often in the lives of others. So many wizards of Oz out there, pretending to be grown ups and yet mired in games of make believe.

Danielle nearly loses her mind and her life over this betrayal, and why not -- he had led her into love as though all were safe for her. Or, more or less safe, as safe as anyone in love who feels love is requited needs to be.

If I may be so bold, there are three passages that save this book entirely, pushing it beyond page-turner into something that could live forever. The long suffering and mostly whole wife of the cad says "...I had to learn to see him clearly, and learn not to be disappointed." I've never been able to do that, and perhaps this is one reason why boys-as-men flee from me. Better to run before you are dispatched. Better to leave before the truth is out.

And then there is this: "...what nobody knew or could ever know, of course, was that you'd found your other half, your Platonic completion, and then your self -- he'd been her self..." I loved this line, so perfectly did it answer what I have not been able to -- as in my own situation, WHY did my own particular cad so imprint me? And why did his departure mean so much, when reason should say good riddance?

And then this, on the heels of the above: "...if anyone could see her they'd mock her mercilessly for being fool enoughto get into this situation and, having got into it, for behaving this way." Amen.