Danielle is the most interesting character of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. While she might not be the loudest character – in fact she is often overshadowed by the personalities of the other characters: friends Julius and Marina, Marina’s famous father and Danielle’s lover Murray Thwaite, the dangerous Ludovic Seely, and the odd nephew of Murray’s called “Bootie” – Danielle’s story is the one that captivated me. The dramas of her friend’s lives and of the world – the novel’s last few chapters take place during and after the 9/11 attacks – take up the plot of the story. While Danielle is not immune to them, and is sometimes right in the thick of turmoil and deception herself, her outward appearance of apathy and calmness lead her friends seek her out (or, alternatively, avoid her) due to her acute eye for reason and logic. Even her lover – the married, famous journalist father of her best friend – finds refuge in their affair; the apparent stability of Danielle is an escape and a comfort.
But on the inside, Danielle is a mess. Her inner monologues betray her confusion, self-doubt, and anxiety. It’s this kind of deep, intra-personal exploration that drives Messud’s book about people and their lies.
While I love novels that grab my attention like quicksand, sinking me deep into corners of the human experience, The Emperor’s Children is a difficult read. Full of stream-of-consciousnesses monologues from multiple characters the prose feels crowded and exhausting rather than immersive. I had to push myself to read this book, to concentrate on the happenings and complicated, self-absorbed conversations. This is not to say the novel was badly written; I very much enjoyed Messud’s writing and want to read more of her work. I just couldn’t connect with these characters that, other than Danielle, never left the flat pages.
I ended The Emperor’s Children feeling frustrated, a bit lost, and somewhat grateful for my own “normal” family and friends. At first I was deeply unsatisfied with the ending. It’s one of those endings that doesn’t really wrap things up plainly but instead vaguely infers the epilogue and leaves you suddenly shut out of these character’s lives after having obsessively followed their every thought for 400+ pages. Did Marina and Ludo stay married? Was her book a success? Did Danielle really return to NYC? What actually happened to Bootie? I knew I was missing the point of the novel by asking these questions, but when I closed this book, that was all I had: unanswered questions.
However, after letting Messud’s novel settle a bit, I found my overall feelings begin to shift. I admit, the meaning behind the name of the novel, The Emperor’s Children, eluded me until Marina discusses her book with Ludo and they finally gave it a name: The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes.
Finally, everything clicked: these characters parading around New York, so wrapped up in their lives, believing the world sees them as meaningful, momentous, and, above all, important, are entitled, delusional, narcissists. Their inflated egos appear ridiculous to the average person and ultimately to the reader. These characters, so obsessed with the meaning of life, with achieving enlightenment, still fall prey to the very average pitfalls of humanity: greed, desire, anxiety, self-doubt, stress, fear. I must say, I’ve never rolled my eyes so much while reading.
But I think that’s the point.
You should read this book if: You enjoy contemporary fiction about the human experience. Once I began looking at the book from the light of the spectator watching the parade of The Emperor’s Children, the theme of Messud’s novel changed. I think this is one of those books you need to read twice, but it’s meaning has never been so important in the age of frauds, self-perception, and false idols.
*This is a republished book review of The Emperor’s Children originally published in 2015 on a former WordPress blog.