Friday, February 09, 2007

The Emperor's Critics

I was mesmerized last weekend reading Claire Messud's new novel, The Emperor's Children. That was surprising, because it took me a week to read the first 100 pages or so. But suddenly I became absolutely absorbed in the escapades of the single, forlorn, thirtyish Marina, Danielle and Julius as they negotiated the trendy world of pre-9/11 literary New York. This doesn't usually happen to me. I'm a very measured reader. I don't typically enjoy books where every chapter ends on a note of suspense.

The Emperor's Children's plot doesn't feature mysterious twists and turns, but I constantly wanted to know what happened next with these characters and their little intrigues. Messud is a dexterous writer, and she handles her characters and various storylines with great aplomb. The most fascinating characters are the outsiders who upset the cosy little world of petty jealousies that the three friends from Brown University have fallen into.

Marina's father, Murray, a famous left-wing essayist and journalistic adventurer, starts a secret email correspondence with his daughter's best friend, Danielle. Marina's cousin, Bootie Tubb, a fiercely idealistic and unrealistic autodidact, holds everyone, especially Murray, to his extreme standards of academic purity and moral truth. And finally there is the slimey Australian Ludovic Seeley, who has come to the United States to foment a revolution by editing a cultural magazine, financed by a Rupert Murdoch-like magnate. Like Bootie, Ludovic's magazine also seeks to expose the truth. Ludovic is both repelled and fascinated by Murray, and he has eyes for the beautiful Marina.

It's all a satirical literary soap opera with priveleged people who have managed to delay growing up, grousing about the truth while sipping wine. How did I become so fascinated by it? I think, that I, too, was drawn in and revolted by Murray. He's a man who loves to live, a man who is often in the moment, so much unlike the characters in his daughter's generation. Would Booty or Ludovic manage to bring him down to their own narrow opinions of truth and morality? Would his affairs be exposed and he be shown for a hypocrite?

In the end, most of this is seen for its petty posturing. When September 11 comes, it changes the world for all of these characters in profound ways. I give high marks to Messud for seamlessly using 9/11 as a plot device. It seems natural, and although it is rendered as a tragic event, it turns out to be strangely freeing for at least one of the novel's characters. I find it interesting that today's New York, with its status scuffles and celebrity obsessions, more closely resembles the pre-9/11 world of these characters than the world immediately after 9/11. At times, I had to remind myself that I was reading about a naive world before Islamic terrorism had hit home. How quickly we've reverted back to old habits in some ways.

By Sunday morning, I was shocked to find that I had finished the novel. It was supposed to last me through the entire weekend. I was suffering from separation anxiety. In desperation, I turned to the internet, in hopes of reading about Messud or maybe even hearing an interview with her. In my search, I stumbled upon a wonderful site for reviews and information on books, movies and other cultural affairs called

For Messud's book, there were dozens of links to reviews on the site. The site shows the first paragraph of each review, then notes whether the review is positive, negative or mixed. For the second time in one weekend I was transfixed, as I pored over review after review (almost all positive.) In fact, the only outright negative review came from the Sydney Morning Herald. Perhaps the depiction of the sleazy Australian biased them against the book.

The site also gave The Emperor's Children an overall score of an 85. What the heck is that, I wondered? It turns out that the site assigns a score to each review based on how positive or negative it is. It then tabulates the various reviews that a book gets from newspapers and magazines around the world into a single score. Messud's rating placed her ninth among books released in 2006 that had received at least seven reviews. I was surprised that it placed that high. A few of the characters, most notably Marina's gay friend Julius, were under-developed. And while I haven't read 10 books better than Emperor's Children in 2006, I sure hope all of the combined reviewers have.

Here are the top 10 reviewed books for 2006 from
1. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
3. The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos.
4. Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh.
5. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis.
6. People's Act of Love by James Meek.
7. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.
8. Heat by Bill Buford.
9. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud.
10. After This by Alice McDermott.

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