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November 22, 2006

Between The Covers


It's daunting to learn that fiction writer Claire Messud is only 39, for The Emperor's Children, her fourth book, a sophisticated and substantive dark comedy of manners and ideas, moves with such ease it almost hides its skill, observable particularly in the telling details that delineate her characters — a just-right verb, noun or adjective and parenthetical revisions that expertly mark indecision.

Messud's gift, aside from plotting a fascinating turn of events, is to keep qualifying, chapter by chapter, impressions of her characters, as they see themselves, as others see them and as their consciousness of being seen prompts further reassessment.

This is one big book that readers will not want to end. Messud, who was born in America and went to Yale, but spent most of her younger life with her family in Australia, England, Canada and France, comes to this quintessential Manhattan tale, as she herself has said, with an outsider's eye. "All our lives are provincial, no matter where we live; but New Yorkers [particularly the literate, single and childless young] can often indulge the fantasy that they are exempt from this."

And do her characters ever indulge, especially as they seek The Truth. The Emperor's Children is as coolly sympathetic as it is unsettlingly unsentimental in its nuanced exploration of what it means for those who can lay claim to privilege and promise but who live on the panic line. They're 30 and what do they have, what do they do! Add to this mix — a fact not readily apparent until the end of this nine-month story line — that the action takes place on the cusp of 9/11, and readers get a surprise, psychologically satisfying, conclusion.

Marina Thwaite, the beautiful, pampered, unemployed daughter of Murray Thwaite, a well known, revered liberal icon; Danielle Minkoff, a documentary filmmaker adrift in a media world as phony as it is enticing; and the half-Vietnamese Julius Clarke, a witty, restless homosexual, a writer who cannot rise above freelancing — have remained close friends since their college days at Brown, but time is running out.

Sensitive and intelligent but without careers to match their ambitions, talents and desires, they commiserate with and support one another in a way that reveals their self-absorption, innocence, cynicism and selfishness, a reflection of their author's adamant belief, as she has said in interviews, that "characters should be interesting, rather than nice."

Marina, much adored by and worshipful of her famous father, has been trying for years to write a book on clothes as a cultural index of the times. Danielle wishes she could get a commission to do something more meaningful than a documentary on liposuction, and Julius, sharp tongued and erratic, flits from one gay affair to another, obsessed about having a steady relationship but always at the self-destructive ready.

Into their world come two catalysts. One is Ludovic Seeley, a manipulative, sexy, power-driven young Australian cultural critic about to found a "revolutionary" magazine in New York, who insinuates himself into Marina's life. The other is Frederick Taub, known as "Bootie," a fat, intellectually talented but anxious weirdo drop out from Oswego College, who is Marina's cousin, and who has fled his smothering upstate mother to pursue an urban self-education and Emersonian self-reliance at the feet of his idol, Uncle Murray.

A bizarre figure, Bootie will emerge as the book's most repellent and pathetic figure, a sad-sack loner whose pathological quest for truth and honesty will lead him, ironically, to cause others great pain and at the same time release from illusion.

How Ms. Messud manages the complexities of characterization and plot with ear-perfect dialogue of those who inhabit the upper West Side and downtown gay bars, is cause for admiration. And surely, her use of 9/11 must be among the more unusual appropriations of this terrible event. With great irony and an increasing mix of the comedic and the tragic, Messud lets the insidious Ludovic Seeley provide Marina not only with impetus for finishing her clothing book but with a title for it as well, The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes.

Of course, Messud's golden children do and do not have clothes . . . or souls. This is an absorbing novel, capturing the spirit of the city and the desperation that percolates just below the surface of all those smiley, hip and savvy 30-somethings on TV.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, Knopf, 432 pp., $25.

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