The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
The three main characters, Danielle, Marina and Julius, meet in college at Brown—all English majors—and go to New York immediately thereafter seeking—and expecting—fame and fortune. They don’t doubt that they are among the beautiful and intelligent people. But as they reach 30, Danielle struggles in documentary film, Julius is barely surviving in a Pitt Street one-room dump on free lance reviews, and Marina, the daughter of noted liberal journalist Murray Thwaite, cannot finish her book about the social meaning of changing clothing styles for children and moves back in with her parents.
I hated the book at first, not being particularly interested in the ins and out of the Manhattan words-and-pictures scene or in the entitlement of Ivy-league graduates who are not yet glitterati, even the ones from Michigan (Julius) and Ohio (Danielle). Other characters are as problematical: Murray Thwaite is rich and famous and known for tough-talking, truthful journalism over 3 or 4 decades, but he’s pampered by the women in his life and clearly believes his own press. His wife, a social worker, is perhaps the most admirable character; she agonizes over the pains of her underdog clients and resists playing traditional wife who bends to all of Murray’s needs (as a token perhaps, she rarely accompanies him to professional social events—Marina does that).
Then several newcomers arrive to upset the applecart which is already rolling away unchecked. First is Ludovic Seely. Danielle meets him in Australia, is attracted to him and introduces him to Marina when he arrives in New York as editor of a startup weekly magazine focused on his radical views about culture. Then Fred “Bootie” Tubb, Murray’s nephew from upstate NY, who dropped out of college because it seemed dumb, arrives to cement relations with his famous uncle—and hero—and is hired as Murray’s amanuensis, probably because Murray’s ego is flattered. And Julius, temping to pay the rent, meets a high flying lawyer with whom he falls in love, and quickly moves in with him.
I might have started out hating it but by the time I was about a third of the way through, I was thoroughly hooked. The plot works as so many plots in novels these days don't. This blogger’s comment pretty much sums up my attitude: “It's an absorbing read that achieves the near-impossible: making us care about the existences of a circle of New York City movers and wannabes in the months bracketing the events of 9/11” (Shane Barry‘s blog, The Monkey’s Typewriter). I forgot to say 9/11 plays, but doesn't overplay, its role.