Tuesday, January 09, 2007

#3 - The Emperor's Children

"Do you hang on to clothes you haven't worn for ten years? Or bags of pasta, cans of beans?"
Danielle did not need to answer.
"What is it about books? Perfectly rationale people get crazy about their books. Who has time for that?"
"I measure my life out in books."
"You should be measuring your life by living. Correction: you shouldn't be measuring your life. What's the point?"
Claire Messud’s massively addictive, massively hefty novel ended up on more than one ‘best of’ list this year, not the least of which was its inclusion in the NY Times “The 10 Best Books of 2006.” The Times describes the novel as 'superbly intelligent' and a 'keenly observed comedy of manners,' and I would not disagree. But it's long. And it's wordy, which is in complete contrast to the 2nd book in my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, A True Story Based on Lies.

At first glance, too, Messud's novel seems to retread over well-worn territory, especially for me, in a year where I also read The Good Life and Elements of Style, tackling yet another book about New Yorkers and the tragedy (and its aftermath) of 9/11 might be a bit much for my already broken heart to take.

But that's where I was wrong, Messud's book, while earnest in its intention to examine the subject matter, is not earnest in its narrative style or tone. And the elements of satire that appear as a result of her ability to take these characters so deep into themselves without necessarily letting them in on the joke, ensures that the novel feels a little like a Restoration play written in our very modern age.

The plot of the novel follows the lives three college friends, Marina, Julian and Danielle, ten years or so after their graduation, who are now firmly ensconced in their adult lives, which means essentially nothing considering they are as much adrift as they ever were, from a few months before 9/11 until just after the attacks. There is a firm cast of supporting characters, Julian's boyfriend, Danielle's mother, Marina's socially awkward and strangely surreal cousin with the odd nickname of Bootie, along with the 'Emperor' himself, Marina's father Murray Thwaite, an accomplished, and older, infamous journalist in the style of Hemingway, who smokes, drinks and, ahem, well, you know.

Marina, beautiful, lost and finishing her own manuscript, deliciously self-absorbed and ridiculously Paris-Hilton-with-brains (entitled) in her approach to her life looks to her best friends, Julian, a freelance writer in a totally destructive relationship, and Danielle, the one with the stable job, stable life, stable outlook, to guide her as she lands back home while attempting to finish her book about children's clothes. Life happens. Love happens. Lots happens. But as the planes crash into the two towers, no one in the novel comes out unscathed.

Messud's talent for long, breathy sentences with many, many commas, dashes and other forms of punctuation, means that we know so much about each character, from their brand of Scotch to the workings of their inner minds, that there's always the fear the book will careen off the page. Yet, her skill as novelist means that all of the many threads of their lives are woven into an immaculate quilt, with not a single stitch out of place.

It's fitting, somehow, that my book from the United States, is about New York City, the one place that's been so ingrained in our psyches from books, from film, from television, that it seems so much more than the sum of its magnificent parts. Oddly, it's an apt description of The Emperor's Children as well, it's a magnum opus of a book, an epic of a tale that carries you in and around its over 400 pages without leaving you lost in Alphabet City in the middle of a scorching hot summer season.

If I have one, teeny, tiny criticism, it's that my heart remains firmly in tact, and as much as I admire Messud's skill as a wordsmith, I wanted more in terms of emotional involvement, and even in the book's penultimate moment, when my favourite character, Danielle, finally falls apart, I didn't ever get that catch in my throat I felt while reading Consumption. But it's not like every book can (or should) make you cry.


Beth said...

I like the sound of this book despite your reservations. And I loved the quotation you used.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see a positive review of this book that comes from outside NYC. I just couldn't believe the hype about this book, so much warns against it. Well-off twenty-somethings, each of a certain type, feeling lost in the big city - it just had alarm bells all over it. Those of us in the US that live somewhere other than The City get sick of New York, too. So I was glad to hear, at least, that your U.S. book was enjoyable for the most part. Maybe one day I'll give it a chance.

Kerry said...

I really enjoyed this book, though the wordyness got to me at first. The descriptions (particularly of people) were so overblown that I couldn't really visualize that she was saying. There was no room to imagine, and it was more a question of assemblage. But then I got used to her style, and taken in by her story-telling. The book was so long, but then I was disappointed when it was finished. Anyway, I'm glad you liked it too.

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...