Claire Messud’s remarkable new novel The Emperor’s Children is that mythical hybrid that publishers dream of one day finding in the piles of manuscripts on their desks: a literary page-turner. In the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Messud follows a group of three collegiate friends from Brown who have moved to New York City, marking their progress as they make their way in the world. They are 30 and filled with the particular anxiety of self-definition that age now inspires. There is Marina, the beautiful daughter of a celebrated journalist; Danielle, the intelligent, introspective film producer from Ohio; and Julius, the gay critic who wears a threadbare Agnès B. suit to parties and secretly temps to make money.
The Emperor’s Children belongs to the robust genre of very-late-coming-of-age novels—among them Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Melissa Bank’s Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing,to name only a few—where adolescence ends somewhere in one’s 30s. In the spirit of the genre, Messud’s characters seem almost surprised that they should be expected to function as adults, that the promise and precocity of their 20s should not be enough to carry them through. Messud begins with a quotation from Anthony Powell about personal myths, and that is the defining preoccupation of the novel: how our ideas about ourselves collide with the practical demands and degradations of adult life. In fact, her interest in personal mythologies, and how they are reworked and tarnished, is what gives her seemingly banal subject matter its unusual depth: Unlike many of the contemporary books of its ilk, The Emperor’s Children is interested in the ideas behind the frivolous surfaces of urban life. (In many ways, Messud’s commitment to digging beneath those surfaces gives the book the feel of a Jane Austen novel, or even that great classic of very-late-coming-of-age, Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.) She adroitly packs a huge amount of information into a brief description of Danielle’s studio apartment in a white brick building:
The apartment was entirely, was only, for her: a wall of books, both read and unread, all of them dear to her not only in themselves, their tender spines, but in the moments or periods they evoked. She had kept some books since college that she had acquired for courses and never read—Frederick Jameson, for example, and Kant’s Critique of Judgment—but which suggested to her that she was, or might be, a person of seriousness, a thinker in some seeping, ubiquitous way; and she had kept, too, a handful of children’s books taken from her now-dismantled girlhood room, like Charlotte’s Web, and the Harriet the Spy novels, that conjured for her an earlier, passionately earnest self, the sober child who read constantly in the back of her parents’ Buick. … She did not display photographs or mementoes of any kind. She abhorred tchotchkes.
One senses that Messud has a shelf of well-loved Iris Murdoch paperbacks in her house, as Murdoch, trained philosopher and popular novelist, is the writer The Emperor’s Children most readily brings to mind. Messud shares Murdoch’s satirical richness, along with her elaborate plotting and fluent, readable prose. There is in The Emperor’s Children the same impression of dense thought, the same psychological precision behind a deceptive ease of narrative that is Murdoch’s signature. And then Murdoch’s influence on this vastly talented writer can be more tangibly detected in the presence of the relative from afar with a secret crush on his cousin (a similar situation can be found in An Unofficial Rose), and in the nasty, manipulative Ludovic, who is precisely the sort of dangerous character Murdoch repeatedly depicted. This kinship seems to me to be an unconditionally good thing: There are not enough writers who, like Murdoch, take seriously the idea of thinking in a novel along with entertaining.
For at the heart of this book isn’t love, but work, which so rarely comes into the late-coming-of-age novel. With each character, she methodically examines the secretly harbored illusions, the grand thoughts that we have about our talents, and how they careen to Earth. Each character manifests his particular form of this desire differently: Bootie, Marina’s cousin from the boondocks, is painfully awkward and lonely, burning with an intellectual seriousness that turns into sheer destruction; Julius seethes at the author photographs of young novelists in the newspapers, “aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure.” Marina slaves for years over a silly book she is not sure she will finish and lives with her parents in her childhood bedroom; Danielle has a good job in films but has to abandon her highbrow ideas to work on a segment on liposuction; and Ludovic Seeley, the supremely manipulative Australian magazine editor, wants to be Napoleon. All of this is infinitely recognizable, and deftly exploited.
Another mark of Messud’s originality is that friendship is in many ways a more vivid theme in this book than love. In evoking comforting immaturity and familiarity of those lingering college friendships that often form the framework of young city life—their closeness and intricate pathologies—Messud revels in the tiny tensions, and prickly affections, and almost romantic love that exists between friends, especially female friends who have known each other for most of their adult lives. She observes with absolute accuracy the type of intricate, highly refined gossip that takes place in these sorts of circles: “Just when you had allowed yourself to believe that Marina was a tiny bit dim, she came out with some irritatingly sharp aperçu. Danielle and Julius had often talked about this—back when they talked of course.”
There are moments in the story where one wishes that Messud would go deeper into her characters, that she would press further through their self-conceptions, especially in the case of Julius, the gay character, who is by far the flimsiest in the book. But to do so she would have had to sacrifice some of the book’s speed and lightness. On a more superficial level, certain finicky readers may be troubled by the Britishisms in the book: American girls 10 years out of college are unlikely to use the word fancy as in “he fancies her,” or to say “he might do,” in quite the way these characters do. But these are the only lapses of anthropological verisimilitude in the book.
The only substantial weakness in this excellent book is the ending. Messud fails to bring off the operatic finale that her characters, and her Iris Murdoch-like plot, compel. She has set up all sorts of denouements and resolutions that are left dangling; she has let the proverbial gun set up in the second act remain unfired, and this feels to me like a failure of confidence—a moment of overly literary squeamishness, perhaps, in what is otherwise an ambitious and magnificent novel.