It's a drawing-room drama in which Messud deviously transposes all of the tawdry ambitions of Victorian society to the Upper West Side, and lo and behold, the parlor starts to look bitterly familiar … This is New York intelligentsia: an incidental gathering of fauna, beset by privilege and neurosis, grappling with a relativistic social code that provides for happiness and tragedy in the most abstruse, often acid, ways … This tightly knit web—a kind of mini-panorama of New York society—is at the heart of Messud's rather ingenious craft. The characters are all extraordinarily drawn—the minutiae of everyone's unhappiness (manifested often through their relationship with Murray) rings true.
The Emperor’s Children is a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11 … The Emperor’s Children is full of satirical chiding, but it’s one of the more delightful — even delicious — forms of such chiding I’ve encountered. Messud’s prose is whorled and Jamesian, of a syntactical complexity that only a confident stylist could handle. Her plot is labyrinthine and deftly orchestrated; without wanting to reveal its twists and turns, I can say that what might seem harsh or overdetermined in the hands of another writer is dealt with unflinchingly but not viciously.
Set in New York City on the eve of 9/11, it begins, to put it glibly, as a sort of highbrow “Friends” — an antic comedy of manners about three college classmates, now on the cusp of their 30’s, trying to sort out questions about love and work and commitment … In tracing each of these characters’ trajectories, Ms. Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without — showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.
The three wunderkinds at the center of Messud's engrossing satire are friends from Brown, strutting through life with élan but also with a sense of floundering that chafes at them like a new pair of Christian Louboutin shoes … Yes, they're spoiled, they're self-absorbed, and they're whiny, but above all else they're irresistibly clever and endowed with the kind of hyper-analytical minds that make them fascinating critics of each other and themselves … Beneath the rich surface of this comedy of manners runs Messud's attention to ‘authenticity’: its importance, its elusiveness and the myriad tricks of self-delusion we pursue to imagine we possess it in greater degree than our friends and family.
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 … 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 … 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.
As the year progresses toward fall, the three main characters' lives take a darker turn … Messud gets across Bootie's total isolation and lack of emotional intelligence, but she never explains how the teen got this way. The other characters, however, are terrifically rendered – especially Marina and Murray, who could have been monsters of selfishness. Instead, Messud is adroit in handling their insecurities and inner emotions. 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.
In The Emperor's Children, the marvelous third novel by Claire Messud, three friends who met at Brown University as students are all living in Manhattan 10 years after graduation … Claire Messud is a masterful writer of displacement, alienation and loneliness. Her novels are about people who have lost their way, their country, their sense of self, their innocence, their grasp on self-knowledge or their purpose. She writes with wit, intelligence and flawless style of predicaments and people both ordinary and extraordinary, making them sympathetic and believable. Her books are an unalloyed pleasure for the reader.
In a world of surface, deeply felt sympathy is hard to come by and hard to put much faith in. Marina, Danielle and Julius [are] the characters at the centre of Claire Messud's deceptively enjoyable novel, deceptive in that her light, narrative touch and skill at stockpiling quirky, telling events make it initially hard to accept that she has a larger, darker purpose … To imply that The Emperor's Children succeeds only through its satirical energies would be to downplay Messud's talents as a miniaturist; she is as much interested in her characters' inner lives as she is in writing social comedy.
An extended adolescence certainly can have its perks. Then again, it might mean ending up 30 years old and unemployed … That The Emperor's Children unfolds in the months leading up 9/11 only adds to the sense of time encroaching on these and other characters .. . All the characters, in fact, take on intriguing nuances as Messud satirizes and challenges perceived notions of culture, class and social mobility. 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.
The novel is largely about the meaning of success, and Messud’s characters define it in various ways … As readers will quickly realize, this is a Sept. 11 novel — or really, a Sept. 10 novel, exploring the last days of an era … When 9/11 comes, the day’s consequences are not about politics or tragedy. Instead, we see the more mundane ways New Yorkers were affected in the immediate wake of the attacks. Messud captures that moment, summoning the disorientation, the reordering of priorities, as well as the images.
The first two-thirds of the novel detail these characters' romantic and careerist manoeuvres; it is very capably done, were it not for the fact that Messud drops significant hints that it all amounts to so much rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic … The overall problem is not so much that the book lacks ambition as that its focus seems frustratingly narrow … The Emperor's Children is ostensibly a novel about identity and growth...This would be fine if Messud's book were a work of great stylistic mastery: yet the discovery that the emperor has no clothes seems a pretty tired old maxim itself.
The plot, which has as its center Thwait's rise and fall, is somewhat slow to build. What kept me going until it really kicked in with a vengeance were Messud's captivating powers of sentence and paragraph making. She has a wide arm span and broad powers of embrace, catching emotion in mid-flight and giving us the feel of thought rather than the usual thoughts about feeling that many writers deliver … [The Emperor’s Children is] one of the slyest, most intelligent and entertaining novels of the year.