The Emperor's Children

One of my great delights over the holiday season was the entire day GF and I spent lounging around the house, napping and reading books. Not work reading, either. It was like a sick day without having any unpleasant symptoms. I rarely get (or take) a day like that now that I'm an adult, but some of my fondest childhood memories are of days spent reading.

And the book I was reading on that day, Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, was deeply satisfying, too -- on its own accord, but also because my hold request for it came in after a long stretch of mediocre library books that I didn't even find worth finishing. This book is probably a bit too talky for everyone's taste--a glance at Amazon's readers' comments suggests as much -- but I found the characters interesting, and their conversations and self-reflections quite realistic. The novel is all about identity formation, focusing primarily on a trio of 30somethings in NYC, friends since college now trying to figure out who they are, how or if they are living up to the potential for greatness they thought they once had. It's about family, about professional and social expectations and aspirations -- about relationships of all sorts. Because it's a New York novel about a preeminent writer (the father of one of the protagonists, and a protagonist in his own right as the chapters trade off) it feels in places as though there might be insidery references (which I wouldn't be in the know enough to catch) -- or it might all just be fiction good enough to be taken from real life. The characters are smart, frustrated, insecure, flawed: like people I know or could know. Messud is best I think at capturing different flavors of alienation: the awkward cousin who shows up from the sticks is painfully realistic in his sweaty blundering way, but even more impressive is the portrayal of the famous writer's daughter, trapped in a book project of her own, hovering in her father's orbit, desperate for his approval. The desperation embedded in ordinary lives is nothing new (and these literate, and literary, characters talk about Russian novels quite a bit) but this novel has a few twists and turns that spice things up. Books are significant, for these characters -- as romantic templates, ethical guideposts, cultural capital -- it's a novel written for people who love novels for something a bit more than mere escape.