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  • Written by Claire Messud
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Written by Claire MessudAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Claire Messud

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On Sale: August 29, 2006
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-26601-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

The Emperor’s Children is a richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune—about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way--and not-- in New York City. In this tour de force, the celebrated author Claire Messud brings to life a city, a generation, and the way we live in this moment.

Excerpt

Our Chef Is Very Famous in London

Darlings! Welcome! And you must be Danielle?” Sleek and small, her wide eyes rendered enormous by kohl, Lucy Leverett, in spite of her resemblance to a baby seal, rasped impressively. Her dangling fan earrings clanked at her neck as she leaned in to kiss each of them, Danielle too, and although she held her cigarette, in its mother-of-pearl holder, at arm’s length, its smoke wafted between them and brought tears to Danielle’s eyes.

Danielle didn’t wipe them, for fear of disturbing her makeup. Having spent half an hour putting on her face in front of the grainy mirror of Moira and John’s bathroom, ogling her imperfections and applying vigorous remedial spackle—beneath which her weary, olive-shaped eyes were pouched by bluish bags, the curves of her nostrils oddly red, and her high forehead peeling—she had no intention of revealing to strangers the disintegration beneath her paint.

“Come in, darlings, come in.” Lucy moved behind them and herded the trio toward the party. The Leveretts’ living room was painted a deep purple—aubergine, in local parlance—and its windows were draped with velvet. From the ceiling hung a brutal wrought iron chandelier, like something salvaged from a medieval castle. Three men loitered by the bay window, talking to one another while staring out at the street, their glasses of red wine luminous in the reflected evening light. A long, plump, pillowed sofa stretched the length of one wall, and upon it four women were disposed like odalisques in a harem. Two occupied opposite ends of the divan, their legs tucked under, their extended arms caressing the cushions, while between them one rested her head upon another’s lap, and smiling, eyes closed, whispered to the ceiling while her friend stroked her abundant hair. The whole effect was, for Danielle, faintly cloudy, as if she had walked into someone else’s dream. She kept feeling this, in Sydney, so far from home: she couldn’t quite say it wasn’t real, but it certainly wasn’t her reality.

“Rog? Rog, more wine!” Lucy called to the innards of the house, then turned again to her guests, a proprietorial arm on Danielle’s bicep. “Red or white? He’s probably even got pink, if you’re after it. Can’t bear it myself—so California.” She grinned, and from her crows’ feet, Danielle knew she was forty, or almost.

Two men bearing bottles emerged from the candlelit gloom of the dining room, both slender, both at first glance slightly fey. Danielle took the imposing one in front, in a pressed lavender shirt and with, above hooded eyes, a high, smooth Nabokovian brow, to be her host. She extended a hand. “I’m Danielle.” His fingers were elegant, and his palm, when it pressed hers, was cool.

“Are you now?” he said.

The other man, at least a decade older, slightly snaggletoothed and goateed, spoke from behind his shoulder. “I’m Roger,” he said. “Good to see you. Don’t mind Ludo, he’s playing hard to get.”

“Ludovic Seeley,” Lucy offered. “Danielle—”

“Minkoff.”

“Moira and John’s friend. From New York.”

“New York,” Ludovic Seeley repeated. “I’m moving there next month.”

“Red or white?” asked Roger, whose open shirt revealed a tanned breast dotted with sparse gray hairs and divided by a narrow gold chain.

“Red, please.”

“Good choice,” said Seeley, almost in a whisper. He was—she could feel it rather than see it, because his hooded eyes did not so much as flicker—looking her up and down. She hoped that her makeup was properly mixed in, that no clump of powder had gathered dustily upon her chin or cheek.

The moment of recognition was, for Danielle, instantaneous. Here, of all places, in this peculiar and irrelevant enclave, she had spotted a familiar. She wondered if he, too, experienced it: the knowledge that this mattered. Ludovic Seeley: she did not know who he was, and yet she felt she knew him, or had been waiting for him. It was not merely his physical presence, the long, feline slope of him, a quality at once loose and controlled, as if he played with the illusion of looseness. Nor was it the timbre of his voice, deep and yet not particularly resonant, its Australian inflection so slight as to be almost British. It was, she decided, something in his face: he knew. Although what he knew she could not have said. There were the eyes, a surprising deep and gold-flecked gray, their lines slightly downturned in an expression both mournful and amused, and the particular small furrow that cut into his right cheek when he smiled even slightly. His ears, pinned close to his head, lent him a tidy aspect; his dark hair, so closely shaven as to allow the blue of his scalp to shine through, emphasized both his irony and his restraint. His skin was pale, almost as pale as Danielle’s own, and his nose a fine, sharp stretch of cartilage. His face, so distinctive, struck her as that of a nineteenth-century portrait, a Sargent perhaps, an embodiment of sardonic wisdom and society, of aristocratic refinement. And yet in the fall of his shirt, the line of his torso, the graceful but not unmanly movement of his slender fingers (and yes, discreetly, but definitely there, he had hair on the backs of his hands—she held to it, as a point of attraction: men ought not to be hairless), he was distinctly of the present. What he knew, perhaps, was what he wanted.

“Come on, darling.” Lucy took her by the elbow. “Let’s introduce you to the rest of the gang.”





This, dinner at the Leveretts’, was Danielle’s last evening in Sydney before heading home. In the morning, she would board the plane and sleep, sleep her way back to yesterday, or by tomorrow, to today, in New York. She’d been away a week, researching a possible television program, with the help of her friend Moira. It wouldn’t be filmed for months, if it were filmed at all, a program about the relationship between the Aborigines and their government, the formal apologies and amends of recent years. The idea was to explore the possibility of reparations to African Americans—a high-profile professor was publishing a book about it—through the Australian prism. It wasn’t clear even to Danielle whether this could fly. Could an American audience care less about the Aborigines? Were the situations even comparable? The week had been filled with meetings and bluster, the zealous singing exchanges of her business, the pretense of certainty where in fact there was none at all. Moira firmly believed it could be done, that it should be done; but Danielle was not convinced.

Sydney was a long way from home. For a week, in her pleasant waft of alienation, Danielle had indulged the fantasy of another possible life—Moira, after all, had left New York for Sydney only two years before—and with it, another future. She rarely considered a life elsewhere; the way, she supposed, with faint incredulity, most people never considered a life in New York. From her bedroom in her friends’ lacy tin-roofed row house at the end of a shady street in Balmain, Danielle could see the water. Not the great sweep of the harbor, with its arcing bridge, nor the ruffled seagull’s wings of the opera house, but a placid stretch of blue beyond the park below, rippled by the wake of occasional ferries and winking in the early evening sunlight.

Early autumn in Sydney, it was still bitter at home. Small, brightly colored birds clustered in the jacaranda trees, trilling their joyous disharmonies. In earliest morning, she had glimpsed, against a dawn-dappled shrub in the backyard, an enormous dew-soaked spiderweb, its intricacies sparkling, and poised, at its edge, an enormous furry spider. Nature was in the city, here. It was another world. She had imagined watching her 747 soar away without her, a new life beginning.

But not really. She was a New Yorker. There was, for Danielle Minkoff, only New York. Her work was there, her friends were there—even her remote acquaintances from college at Brown ten years ago were there—and she had made her home in the cacophonous, cozy comfort of the Village. From her studio in its bleached-brick high-rise at Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street, she surveyed lower Manhattan like a captain at the prow of her ship. Beleaguered and poor though she sometimes felt, or craving an interruption in the sea of asphalt and iron, a silence in the tide of chatter, she couldn’t imagine giving it up. Sometimes she joked to her mother—raised, as she herself had been, in Columbus, Ohio, and now a resident of Florida—that they’d have to carry her out feet first. There was no place like New York. And Australia, in comparison, was, well, Oz.

This last supper in Sydney was a purely social event. Where the Leveretts lived seemed like an area in which one or two ungentrified Aboriginal people might still linger, gray-haired and bleary, outside the pub at the end of the road: people who, pint in hand, hadn’t accepted the government’s apology and moved on. Or perhaps not, perhaps Danielle was merely imagining the area, its residents, as they had once been: for a second glance at the BMWs and Audis lining the curb suggested that the new Sydney (like the new New York) had already, and eagerly, edged its way in.

Moira was friendly with Lucy Leverett, who owned a small but influential gallery down at The Rocks that specialized in Aboriginal art. Her husband, Roger, was a novelist. As John parked the car outside the Leveretts’ large Victorian row house, Moira had explained, “Lucy’s great. She’s done a lot on the art scene here. And if you want to meet Aboriginal artists, to talk to them for the film, she’s your woman.”

“And he?”

“Well”—John had pulled a rueful moue—“his novels are no bloody good—”

“But we like him,” Moira finished firmly.

“I’ll give him this much, he’s got great taste in wine.”

“Roger’s lovely,” Moira insisted. “And it’s true about his books, but he’s very powerful here in Sydney. He could really help you, if you needed him.”

“Roger Leverett?” Danielle thought a moment. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“Not surprised.”

“As in ‘our chef is very famous in London.’ ”

“Come again?”

“There’s a nasty-looking little Chinese restaurant in the East Village with a handwritten sign in the window—a dirty window, too—that says ‘our chef is very famous in London.’ But not in New York, or anywhere else outside of London.”

“And probably not in London either, eh?” John had said, as they approached the Leveretts’ front door.

“Roger Leverett is very famous in Sydney, sweetheart, whatever you say.”





At supper—prawns and quails’ eggs with squid-ink noodles, followed by emu, which closely resembled steak and which she had to force herself to eat—Danielle sat between Roger and a beautiful Asian boy—Ito? Iko?—who was the boyfriend of an older architect named Gary at the other end of the table. Ludovic Seeley sat next to Moira, his arm languidly and familiarly draped over the back of her chair, and he leaned in to speak to her as though confiding secrets. Danielle glanced over every so often, unable to stop herself, but did not once, until the passion fruit sorbet was before them, find him looking her way. When he did, his spectacular eyes seemed again amused, and they did not waver. It was she who lowered her gaze, shifting in her chair and feigning sudden interest in Ito/Iko’s recent trip to Tahiti.

The evening now seemed to her an elaborate theater, the sole purpose of which was meeting Ludovic Seeley. That anyone could care for Lucy or Roger or Gary or Ito/Iko in the way Danielle cared for her friends in New York seemed almost implausible: these people, to her, were actors. Only Ludovic was, in his intimate whisperings and unbroken glances, very real. Whatever that meant. Reality, or rather, facing it, was Danielle’s great credo; although if she were wholly honest, here and now, she believed a little in magic, too.

Roger, beside her, was jovial and solicitous. Mostly, Danielle felt her host was a narcissist, delighted by the sound of his own voice and the humor of his own jokes, and by the pipe he fiddled with and sucked upon between courses. He was generous with the red wine, more so to her and himself than to those farther afield, and he grew more positively loquacious with each glass.

“Been to McLaren Vale? Not this time? When do you leave? Ah, well then. Next time, promise me you’ll get to South Australia, do the wine route. And there’s great scuba diving off the coast. Been scuba diving? No, well, I can see you might be intimidated. I used to do a lot of diving in my day, but you can get yourself in some very nasty situations, very nasty indeed. About twenty years ago—I wasn’t much older than you are now—how old are you? Thirty? Well, you don’t look it, my girl. Such fine skin. It must be those fine Jewish genes—you are Jewish, aren’t you? Yes, well, anyway, the Reef. I was up diving with some mates, this is before Lucy, she’d never let me do it now. I was living up near Brisbane, finishing my second novel—Revelation Road, you probably don’t know it? No, well, I’m not vain about these things. It was a great success at the time. And anyway, this trip out to the Reef was the reward, you know, for a job well done, the editor was jumping up and down in Sydney he was so mad about the manuscript, but I said, screw it, George, I’m entitled to celebrate before I come back, because once you’re in this world you’re in it, aren’t you? So where was I? The Reef, yes. It was my first time out there, by helicopter, of course—first time in a copter, if you can believe it—and we were four blokes . . .”

Roger’s blithe torrent grew murkier to Danielle with each sip of claret, and she pasted her smile—quite genuine; she was enjoying herself, and lord knew it wasn’t effortful—in permanence upon her face. She smiled while slurping the inky noodles, while dissecting the antennaed prawns. She felt as though she smiled even while chewing the rather tough emu fillet, plucking the dense slices from their bed of bloodied polenta. She smiled while glancing at Ludovic Seeley, who did not glance back, and smiled at Moira, at Lucy, at John in turn. When Roger went to fetch the dessert—“I do the wine, my dear, and the clearing up. The fetching and carrying. And I make the meanest risotto you’ll ever taste, but not tonight, not tonight”—Danielle turned to Ito/Iko and learned that he was twenty-two, an apprentice in a fashion house, that he’d known Gary eight months, and that they’d recently had the most fabulous holiday in Tahiti, “very Gauguin, and so sexy. I mean, the people on that island are so sexy, it’s to die.”

“Is that where Captain Cook got killed, in the end?” Danielle asked, feeling very culturally au fait to be dropping the founder’s name.

“Oh no, doll, that was Hawaii. Very different vibe altogether. Totally different.” Ito/Iko flashed a broad smile and fluffed at his hair, which was, she decided, slightly tinted with blue, and glistening in the candlelight. “You haven’t been here very long, have you? Because everyone knows it was Hawaii. I mean, I know it was Hawaii, and I dropped out of school at sixteen.”





After the meal, the party resettled in the living room, where Ito/Iko curled under Gary’s arm like a chick beneath a hen’s wing. Danielle gratefully abandoned her wineglass at the table, and sat sipping water as movement and general conversation buzzed around her in a pleasant fog. She felt a thrill of alarm—of life—when Ludovic Seeley took the armchair to her right.

“What takes you to New York?” she asked.

He leaned in, as she’d seen him do with Moira: intimacy, or the impression of it, was clearly his mode. But he did not touch her. His shirt cuff glowed against the plum velvet of the chair arm. “Revolution,” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m going to foment revolution.”

She blinked, sipped, attempted silently to invite elucidation. She didn’t want to seem to him unsubtle, unironic, American.

“Seriously? Seriously, I’m going to edit a magazine.”

“What magazine is that?”

“The Monitor.”

She shook her head.

“Of course you haven’t heard of it—I haven’t got there yet. It doesn’t exist yet.”

“That’s a challenge.”

“I’ve got Merton behind me. I like a challenge.” Danielle took this in. Augustus Merton, the Australian mogul. Busy buying up Europe, Asia, North America. Everything in English and all to the right. The enemy.

Lucy, bearing coffee, appeared suddenly, tinily, before them. “He’s done it before, Danielle. He’s a man to be afraid of, our Ludo. He’s got all the politicians and the journos on the run in this town. The True Voice—have you seen it?”

“Oh. Moira told me about it. I mean, she told me about you.”

“We don’t see eye to eye on pretty much anything,” Lucy said with a conciliatory smile at Seeley, touching her delicate hand with its black nail polish to his lavender shoulder. “But my God, this bloke makes me laugh.”

He bowed his head slightly. “A true compliment. And the first step on the road to revolution.”

“And now you’re going to take on New York?”

Danielle’s skepticism evidently made him bristle. “Yes,” he said clearly, his gray eyes, their hoods fully retracted, now firmly and unamusedly upon her. “Yes, I am.”





Danielle rode home in the backseat with her eyes shut for most of the way. She opened them periodically to glimpse flashes of the city, the sulfurous lights on the asphalt and the marine sky. “Roger certainly loves to talk,” she said.

“Did he tell you about his novels? Bore you senseless with unwieldy plots?” Moira asked.

“No, scuba diving. And the wine route. Better than that Asian guy.”

“Gary’s new boyfriend? He seemed sweet.”

“Sweet?” John scoffed. “Sweet?”

“He was sweet. No, he really was. But not very interesting.”

There was a silence, during which Danielle longed to ask about Seeley but did not want to seem to care. Of the evening’s underwater blur, Seeley was all that stuck out.

“Did you talk to Ludo at the end?” asked Moira.

“Ludo, is it now?” John said. “My dear, aren’t we grand?”

“Is he really a big deal?” Danielle hoped her voice was neutral. “He seemed a little creepy, or something.”

“He’s moving to New York, you know,” said Moira. “He’s been hired in to launch a mag—they sacked the first guy, you may have read about it. Merton thought his vision was wrong—Billings, was it? Billington? Buxton, I think. Big scandal. Makes Seeley the chosen boy, plucked from halfway across the world. He’s going sometime very soon.”

“Next month,” Danielle said. “I gave him my e-mail. Not that he’ll need it, but in case he’s at a loose end. Trying to be neighborly.”

“That’s a good one,” John said. “Seeley at a loose end. That I’d like to see.”

“Think he’ll succeed?” Danielle asked.

“He thinks so,” said Moira. “In fact, he knows so. But he doesn’t give much away, so it’s hard to know what he’s really plotting. And it’s hard to know whether he’s running to something or running away. He’s made such a splash here in the past, what is it, five years—Christ, he’s only what? Thirty-three? Thirty-five? A baby!—and he’s got a lot of friends—”

“And a lot of enemies,” said John.

“And I just don’t think there’s any challenge for him here anymore, that’s all. But a ton of hassle. With this kind of backing—jeez, Merton’s choice!—he probably reckons he’ll conquer New York, and then the world.”

“Like Kim Jong Il, eh? Or Saddam Hussein?” said John.

“Well, it might not be as easy as he expects,” said Danielle, thinking herself surprisingly witty in spite of the quantities of red wine. “It may just be a case of ‘our chef is very famous in London.’ ”

“That it may,” John said, obviously satisfied at the thought. “That it may.”

chapter two

Bootie, the Professor

Bootie?” Judy Tubb yelled, in her housecoat at the bottom of the stairs, washed in the dull, pearly light of the reflected snow outside. “Bootie, are you going to come down and help dig us out, or what?”

Met by silence, she set a foot upon the creaking step, her hand on the polished wooden ball at the banister’s base, and started, as loudly as she could, to climb. “I said, Bootie? Did you hear me?”

A door opened and her son ambled into view on the gloomy landing, pushing his glasses up his nose and squinting. His old-fashioned brown flannel pyjamas were rumpled around his soft bulk, and his first pre- occupation seemed to be that his mother not catch sight of his pale and generous belly: he clutched at his pyjama strings and hoisted up the bottoms, revealing instead his oddly slender ankles and his long, hairy toes.

“Have you been sleeping all this time, since breakfast?” Judy spoke sharply but felt a burst of tenderness for her befuddled boy, as he wavered before her, almost six feet tall. “Bootie? Frederick? Are you still asleep?”

“Reading, Ma. I was reading in bed.”

“But there’s two feet of snow in the drive, and it’s still coming down.”

“I know.”

“We’ve got to get out, don’t we.”

“School’s cancelled. You don’t have to go anywhere.”

“Just because I don’t have to teach doesn’t mean I don’t need to go anywhere. And what about you?”

Frederick pushed a fist behind his glasses and rubbed his left eye.

“You’re supposed to be looking for a job, aren’t you? You’re not going to find one lying around in bed.”

“There’s a snowstorm on. Everything is cancelled, not just school. There’s nowhere to go today, and no jobs to get today.” He seemed suddenly solid, even stolid, in his bulk. “Besides, my reading isn’t nothing. It’s work, too. Just because it’s not paid doesn’t mean it’s not work.”

“Please, don’t start.”

“Ask Uncle Murray. Don’t you think he spends his days reading?”

“I don’t know what your uncle does with his time, Bootie, but I’d remind you that he’s well paid for it. Very well paid. And I know that when he was your age, he was in college and he had a job. Maybe two jobs, even. Because Pawpaw and Nana couldn’t afford—”

“I know, Ma. I know. I’m going to finish my chapter. And then if it’s stopped snowing, I’ll shovel the drive.”

“Even if it’s still snowing, Bootie. They’ve plowed the road twice since seven.”

“Don’t call me Bootie,” he said as he retreated back into his bedroom. “It’s not my name.”





Judy Tubb and her son lived in a spacious but crumbling Victorian house on the eastern side of Watertown, off the road to Lowville, in a neighborhood of other similarly sprawling, similarly decrepit buildings. Some had been broken up into apartments, and one, at the end of the street, had been abandoned, its elegant windows boarded over and its porch all but caved in; but that was simply the way of Watertown. It was still a good address, a fine house on a fine square lot at the good end of town, as respectable as it had been twenty years before when Bert and Judy had moved in with their little daughter, Sarah, and Bootie not even on the way.

Born a mile from this house, Judy had lived her whole life in town, except for college and a few years teaching in Syracuse. Watertown was to her as invisible as her skin, and she no longer saw (if she ever had) the derelict storefronts and sagging porches. The grand downtown, once known as Garland City, its stone buildings and central plaza constructed on an imperial scale, impressed her only rarely as forlorn: mostly it seemed, as she drove through it to the high school or to the Price Chopper, of a blind and consoling familiarity. So, too, with their neighborhood, their house: she cleaved to them lovingly, simply because they were hers.

The house itself had steep steps at its front, and a small cement patio with a little balcony overhanging, which opened off the upstairs hallway. The Tubbs had had aluminum siding put on in the early eighties—white, simple—but it had grown grubby and mottled with moss and mud, and was in places dented by fallen gutter pipes or bowed by the work of zealous squirrels or birds who had made their nests between the siding and the exterior wall. The remaining wood trim was painted green, but it had been worn bald in spots and was everywhere cracked and peeling. The snow covered the worst of the building’s indignities (including a rotting patch of brick in the foundation), and softened its outlines, so that the peaked roof—once of slate, now of poorly stapled asphalt sheeting—seemed to rise with a solid confidence into the clouded sky.

Inside, the Tubbs’ home was still elegant—except, perhaps, Bootie’s room, a territory to which Judy laid no claim. Little had been done to the rooms in years—she had not had the courage for even a coat of paint since Bert’s death from pancreatic cancer four years before—and they had about them, perhaps in consequence, a heavy, darkened aspect; but she kept the house clean, its wood polished, its linoleum waxed, even its windows (at least in summer, when the storms were taken down) washed. There was little to be done about the stubborn dottings of mold on the basement wall (she blamed the aluminum siding, after all these years, which kept the house from breathing) or in a patch on the blue bathroom lino behind the toilet. But by and large, Judy considered that all was in fine repair, the old cabinets and wide-planked floors, even the small red-and-blue-lozenged stained-glass window over the front door, which she knew—Bert had discovered it; he loved researching such things—had been ordered from a Sears catalogue all the way back at the turn of the last century.

She loved her house, largely though not only for the history that it held, and she was most partial to the upstairs—the grand, bright bedroom overlooking the street that she had shared with her dear husband, and where, were it not for the hospital, he would have died; the broad hall with its balcony and gleaming banisters; even the faded pink flowered carpet along the floor, with its faint smell of dust, which she knew so intimately that she could locate, in her mind, its gnawed edges, its threadbare patches and its irremovable stains. As she moved from that hallway into her beloved bedroom, worrying about her sullen son (it was the age, she kept telling herself, his and the culture’s), she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau. Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous. Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor. In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.

Judy Tubb made her bed—tidily, smoothing the bottom sheet and removing the stray gray curls from her pillow, then squaring and tucking the top sheet, the mustard wool blanket. She fussed over the bedspread, its evenness on both sides, the plumpness of the pillows beneath its folds. She had no truck with duvets, flimsy and foreign: she liked the weight of a bed made with blankets, and the work of it. She showered, dried, and dressed in the bathroom in the hall—the house was Victorian, and had only the one bathroom in spite of four bedrooms—and emerged in her favorite blush turtleneck beneath the avocado angora cardigan she had knitted last winter. In truth, she had knitted it for her niece, Marina—God only knew why, because they weren’t close; except that she loved to knit and had already made a dozen sweaters for her daughter and her grandkids. But it wasn’t quite finished in time for Christmas, and somehow she had known, when she opened the gift Marina had sent—a crimson velvet scarf with cutaway flowers in it and silk tasseled fringe, like the shawl of a Victorian madam—she had just known that the sweater wasn’t right. She’d sent a Borders gift card instead, and kept the sweater for herself. As for the scarf, there was nowhere in Watertown, New York, that she could wear it—certainly not to teach Geography to the sophomores and juniors at the high school—so she had wrapped it up in tissue and put it in the back of her dresser drawer. The funny thing was, she loved the cardigan as if it had been a precious gift, and she somehow thought of it as a gift from Marina, which made her think more warmly of the girl after all, and which, in a roundabout way, it was.

As she bundled herself into her parka, her Bean boots, her pink woolly toque (also her own handiwork, a pretty lace pattern with a bobble on top), and took, in her mittened hands, the aluminum shovel from the porch, she worried about Bootie, upstairs in his pajamas like a boy. She wouldn’t ask him again to help with the shoveling—he could perfectly well hear the rhythmic scrape and shuffle of her movements from his window overhead—but she hoped against hope that he might come down of his own accord. Of course if he did come, it would mean another day he hadn’t bathed. She didn’t like to nag him about it (who wanted to be that kind of mother, always picking and finding fault?), but she couldn’t remember hearing the tub run once in the past week. He took only baths, not showers, and those rarely; but when he did he lingered an hour in the cooling water, reading one of his infernal books.

Judy Tubb tackled the snow in the driveway first and, in spite of the delicious cold of the shovel through her mittens, in spite of the cold sting pinkening her cheeks, in spite of the satisfying soreness she felt, almost immediately, in her lower back, she felt her good humor evaporating as she thought again about her boy. Her darling and only. Her prize. What was it now? March, it was March now, and almost Easter. And Bootie had graduated almost a year ago, at the top of his class. She’d never imagined he would still be here, or would be back here; and when, in September, he’d gone off to Oswego, she’d thought that it was the beginning of his life in the wider world. No telling what he could accomplish. And if Bert were still alive, he’d see that his youngest had fulfilled the promise, that all the saving (Bert had been an accountant, and wisely parsimonious) had been for something. For Bootie to shine. It was Sarah who’d given them trouble, pregnant at nineteen and married at twenty, but now she had a good job at the savings and loan and three tow-headed, boisterous kids, and her Tom had proven a good husband and settled into his work running Thousand Islands boat tours out of Alexandria Bay in the summer and plowing on a state contract in the winter. Heck, Tom would probably drive down from the bay and shovel out her drive before her own boy stirred himself to help her. He was a good son-in-law, even if she’d hoped, once, for better.

But Bootie: he was going to be a politician, he’d said, or a journalist like his uncle, or maybe a university professor. That’s what the kids had called him at the high school: the professor. He’d been a chubby boy, and bespectacled, but always respected, even admired, in a funny way. He’d been valedictorian. And then home at Christmas with twenty or thirty extra pounds on him and a fistful of incompletes, saying that college was bullshit, or at least Oswego was bullshit, that his teachers were morons and he wouldn’t go back. She suspected a girl, some girl had broken his heart or embarrassed him—he wasn’t easy with girls, not confident—or else his roommates, two tight lunk-headed athletes with beer on the brain; but Bootie wasn’t telling, or not telling her. And since Christmas he’d spent all his time in his room, reading and doing God knew what on the computer (was it pornography? That would be okay, she could understand it in a young boy, but as a distraction, not an obsession; and if only she knew), or in the grand pillared library downtown, where the heat was always too high and the air smelled funny and where, to be honest, he had to order books from out of town to get anything more serious than Harlequin romances or the Encyclopedia Britannica. Had he looked for a job? Not once until last month, when she gave him an ultimatum, told him he’d have to pay rent one way or another, if he wouldn’t go back to school; so that now he made a big show at breakfast with the classifieds, circling factory jobs and short-order cook positions and suggesting—it was the only time he laughed these days—that he could sell used cars at Loudoun’s Ford & Truck, or wait tables at Annie’s off the interstate.

And now here he was on the porch, no gloves, no hat, ski jacket over his pajamas, wielding the second rusty and old shovel, like a weapon, with the steam of his breath fogging his glasses.


From the Hardcover edition.
Claire Messud|Author Q&A

About Claire Messud

Claire Messud - The Emperor's Children

Photo © Lisa Cohen

Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her book of novellas, The Hunters, were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice. All four books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Messud has been awarded Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

Claire Messud is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

Q: In THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN, the introduction of a few outsiders into the world of the main characters drastically alters the lives of everyone. What were their lives like before the appearance of Bootie and Ludovic Seeley on the scene?

Well, Marina had been living at home for the better part of a year, trying to get her book finished; and Julius and Danielle were living pretty much as they had done for some time, each in their apartment. But the three of them spent a lot of time together — more time than they do once the book is underway -- in the way very close, old friends do when they are single and childless.

Q: The first chapter is called “Our Chef is Very Famous in London”, which gets to the heart of things that a reputation one place may not carry to another. What made you decide to start the book with that?

Danielle — like Marina and Julius also, albeit in slightly different ways — is very much a New Yorker. Her whole sense of the world, post-college, has been focused entirely on New York. I wanted to begin the novel in a rare moment, for her, in which she has some perspective on her own life, some sense of its provincialism. All our lives are provincial, no matter where we live; but New Yorkers can often indulge the fantasy that they are exempt from this. It’s harder to do from the other side of the world.

Q: What is THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN about, to you? Where did the initial inspiration for the novel come from?

That’s a big question. I don’t think I have a simple answer. What’s it about? I hope it’s about what it’s like to be alive in a certain place in a certain time. It’s about a group of people with certain aspirations and expectations and limitations, and the way they contend with what is thrown at them. Probably in my mind it’s about ambition, and what it means, or meant, and didn’t, in that particular historical moment. And about confronting limitations. And about making a self. All those things. As for where the inspiration for the novel came from, it’s lost in the mists of time. I began the novel (with the same characters but in a different form) in early 2001, a long time ago; and later that year abandoned it, because it seemed impossible to continue. It took me a year or more to come back to it, after failing with a couple of other things; and by then it seemed to have an organic necessity, an urgency in my mind, that has kept me from worrying, ever since, about where the idea for it came from.

Q: Murray Thwaite is reminiscent of a few journalistic bigwigs… was there anyone in particular you wanted him to bring to mind? And if so, will you ever tell?

As anybody who writes fiction knows, it’s a magpie affair. To create a character, you take a shiny button here, a strand of hair there, a bit of tinsel from the garbage can, and build something which, you hope, will look like a person. All the characters in this book (and in my other books too) were created this way; and all of them — including Murray — contain elements of myself in them. I wouldn’t go so far as saying “Murray Thwaite, c’est moi”, but he certainly feels like a part of me.

Q: You live in Boston but chose to write a novel about New York City, focusing on its upper crust. Why this world?

I’ve only lived in Boston for a few years. I lived in DC before that. And London before that. It may seem illogical, then, to have chosen New York, but I feel as though it’s a picture of my parallel life, of a life I might have had. I went to college in Connecticut, and all my friends moved straight to New York. Most of them are still there. My parents also live in Connecticut; my dad was a commuter. All in all, I’ve spent a lot of time in New York. It was always the city towards which I turned. And the dynamics of a group of close friends from college — that’s also a world I know.

Q: We don’t really see the story from, say, Ludo’s perspective. Why?

Geez, would you want to? I shudder to think what the world looks like from Ludo’s perspective.

Q: Not to put too fine a point on it, but the characters here aren’t exactly warm, fuzzy, and loveable; many make some despicable decisions and/or comments in the course of the novel. What compelled you to write about such a lot?

I adamantly believe that characters should be interesting, rather than nice. I also believe that these guys, for all their faults and limitations, are no worse than most of us. If they were your cousins, you’d see them clearly and criticize them and still love them. That’s how I feel about them. I have no interest in sentimental, saccharine portrayals — life’s too short for untruths. I was just trying to portray people as I see them, motivated by conflicting impulses, given to shabby thoughts or actions, but not, for the most part, bad people.

Q: OK, so our heroes and heroines aren’t all bad–there’s an element of likeability there too! Do you have a favorite? If so, will you share him/her with us?

Ach. A parent mustn’t play favorites. I have a few, in fact. But I’d have to say I have a soft spot for Bootie.

Q: Did you set out writing THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN with the characters in mind, or did the plot form them? Is this usually the case as you write–and how does it affect the way your stories take shape?

Everything I write is different, so I can’t really generalize about where I begin. But character is very important to me — it’s why I write, I think; that and language. And if you really know a character, then you figure out how they would behave in a given situation. And the plot comes out of that, really. It’s about trying to observe your people closely, honestly, and without imposing your will artificially upon them. If you make a character do something that character wouldn’t do, your book is a fake.

Q: Our three main characters–Marina, Julius, and Danielle–are on the cusp of thirty. Do you see that age as the portal to true adulthood?

True adulthood? Show me a true adult! But I do think that in contemporary American society, among the bourgeoisie, many young adults aren’t forced fully to take on the mantle of adulthood in their twenties. It’s wrong to generalize; but for Marina, Julius and Danielle, at least, the combination of their vast ambition and their professional meandering leads them, at around 30, suddenly to feel it’s time to get their lives together, with a sort of panic they might not have felt if they’d noticed earlier how quickly time was passing.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A masterly comedy of manners. . . . Splendid.” —The New York Times Book Review“A great achievement. . . . Intelligent and unsparing . . . The Emperor's Children is likely to be one of the most talked-about novels. . . . Buy two copies; give one to a friend.” —The Economist“Engaging. . . . The characters 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.”—USA Today“Ambitious, glamorous, and gutsy. . . . A marvel of bold momentum and kinetic imagination.” —Elle“A robust, canny and surprisingly searching novel [told] with a light-handed irony that is, by turns, as measured as Edith Wharton's and as cutting as Tom Wolfe's. . . . Dazzling.” —Los Angeles Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A masterly comedy of manners. . . . Splendid.”
The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are meant to enliven your group’s discussion of The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s richly plotted, densely populated comedy of manners and ideas. Like some of its high-profile antecedents, it’s set in New York City: not the august, whalebone-corseted New York of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence nor the brainy, feuding city of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, but New York at the turn of the twenty-first century, when restaurants have taken the place of museums—and maybe even churches—and every new magazine launch is billed as the opening salvo of a revolution. It’s a New York where ideas, along with beauty, have become a form of currency, essential for anyone who wants to go anywhere but not to be taken too seriously. Much of the novel’s comedy arises from the misunderstandings between those characters who understand this and those who don’t: The latter have their hearts broken.

About the Guide

At the novel’s center are two young women and a young man, friends since college, who are now entering their thirties. Marina Thwaite is a beautiful “It” girl who, by virtue of her looks and connections, has been given a contract for a book she’s not sure she can write. Danielle Minkoff is a thoughtful young woman laboring in the purgatory of television and longing romantically for something better. Julius Clarke is frivolous, hard-living, and famously witty, having parlayed said wit into a career as a downtown critic but not much of a living: to his torment, he has to work temp jobs. All of these three revolve at varying proximities around Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, an aging liberal journalist of lofty reputation and even higher self-estimation. It’s he who is the Emperor of the novel’s title. Soon Murray’s gravity draws a fourth satellite, his young nephew Bootie, an awkward, worshipful boy who aspires to become a genius and sees Murray as essential to that objective.

It’s Bootie’s arrival in New York that sets much of the novel’s events in motion. He gets a job as Murray’s secretary and sublets Julius’s apartment after Julius moves in with a rich, doting boyfriend. He pines for Marina even as she becomes involved with the man Danielle had set her sights on, the elegant, serpentine Australian magazine editor Ludovic Seeley. And when Bootie’s worship of Murray turns sour, he announces his change of heart with a gesture that destroys the equilibrium the other characters—mistakenly or not—took for happiness. There are comedies that leave a book’s characters with whipped cream on their faces and comedies that leave them deeply, and sometimes painfully, changed, and The Emperor’s Children is the latter. Thanks to Claire Messud’s deft grasp of character, her flawless eye for New York’s social hierarchies, and her deliciously intricate sentences, her book also changes the reader.

About the Author

Claire Messud was educated at Cambridge and Yale. Her novels, When the World Was Steady and The Hunters were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice. All three of her books were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship, and is the current recipient of the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

Discussion Guides

1. At the novel’s onset, most of the characters are outside New York. Why might Messud have chosen to begin in this manner? At what other points in the book do the characters leave the city, and with what results?

2. Which of the novel’s characters strikes you as its moral center? Is it Bootie, who comes to New York with such high ideals and easily rankled feelings? Is it Danielle, who has lived there long enough to feel at home but who still sees its pretensions and absurdities? With which of these characters is the reader meant to identify? Whose judgments seem the most reliable? And what flaws or blind spots afflict them?

3. Julius is obsessed with the characters of Pierre and Natasha from War and Peace, longing to be the sparkling Natasha but fearing he’s really more like the brooding, self-conscious Pierre. Bootie is constantly quoting Emerson. Which of the other characters has an emblematic book, and what role do those books play in their lives, in the way they see the world, and, of course, the way they see themselves? Is Julius anything like Pierre or Natasha? Does Bootie really live up to Emerson’s criterion of genius? At what points do they similarly misread other characters?

4. Almost everybody in The Emperor’s Children envies, and is intimidated by, somebody else. Julius, for instance, is
in awe of Marina’s self-confidence and envious of her sense of entitlement. Marina is cowed by her father. Poor Bootie is a virtual pressure cooker of indiscriminate awe and resentment. What do Messud’s characters feel insecure about? Is there anyone in the book who seems truly comfortable with him or herself or any relationship that seems to be conducted by equals? Would you say that awe and envy are this novel’s dominant emotions?

5. Marina, we learn, frequently accompanies Murray to public functions, and is sometimes mistaken for his “trophy wife” [p. 40]. Does their relationship strike you as incestuous [p. 121]? Compare Marina’s unfolding relationship with Ludovic to her bond with her father. Do you think that Ludovic—incidentally, the only major character who is seen entirely from the outside—really loves Marina or is merely using her, and if so for what purpose?

6. Just as Marina has symbolically taken over her mother’s role, “Danielle had the peculiar sensation of having usurped her friend’s role in the Thwaite family, and more than that, of having usurped it at some moment in the distant past, a decade or more ago: she felt like a teenager . . and she was suddenly, powerfully aware of the profound oddity of Marina’s present life, a life arrested at, or at least returned to, childhood” [p. 46]. How many of the other characters seem similarly suspended? Which of them seems like a full-grown adult, and what does it mean to be an adult in the scheme of this novel? If Danielle has indeed usurped Marina’s place, what is the significance of her affair with Marina’s father? Which of the other characters takes on another character’s role, and for what reasons?

7. When pressed to take a job, Marina confesses, “I worry that that will make me ordinary, like everybody else” [p. 74]. To what extent are other characters possessed by the same fear, and how do they defend themselves against it? Do they have a common idea of what constitutes ordinariness? Can ordinariness even exist in a social world in which everyone is constantly, feverishly striving to be unique? Is it possible that Marina is just lazy and prevaricating in her charming way?

8. With his high-flown ambitions, his indolence, and his appalling sense of hygiene, Bootie initially seems like a comic character. But in the course of the novel Messud’s portrait of him darkens until he comes to seem either sinister or tragic—perhaps both. How does she accomplish this? Which other characters does she gradually reveal in a different light? Compare Messud’s shifting portrayal of Bootie to her handling of Julius and Danielle. In what ways do they too evade or defy the reader’s initial expectations about them?

9. On similar lines, both Ludovic and Bootie denounce Murray as a fraud while Bootie in particular prides himself on his sincerity. But is such sincerity a good thing? What other characters embrace that virtue, and with what results? Compare Bootie’s frank literary assessment of his uncle with Murray’s frank critique of his daughter’s manuscript, or his even franker response to Bootie’s essay. When in this novel does honesty turn out to be a pretext for something else? And when do subterfuge and deception turn out to be acts of kindness?

10. Murray feels that his mother’s efforts at improving him succeeded only in “turning her boy into someone, something, she couldn’t understand” [p. 135]. By contrast, he thinks, Marina has been paralyzed by the very expansiveness of her upbringing. What does this novel have to say about parents and children? Which of the Emperor’s children has proved a disappointment? Does any parent in this novel (Murray, Annabel, Judy, Randy) truly understand his or her offspring? And is it good for said offspring to be understood?

11. Some of Messud’s characters begin the novel in a state of happiness and others attain it, but nearly all of them see their happiness threatened or even shattered. How does this come about? Which of them is the victim of outside forces and which is responsible for his or her fall? How would you describe this novel’s vision of happiness? Considering that the typical comedy has a happy (or happy-ish) ending, what do you make of the fact that so many of Messud’s characters end up bereft or disappointed?

12. Among this novel’s many characters, one has to include the character of New York City. How does Messud bring the city to life? Compare Murray’s New York with that of Marina, Danielle, Bootie, and Julius. What is it that draws the characters to prove themselves in New York?

13. What role do the events of September 11, 2001, play in The Emperor’s Children? Are there other points when history—or reality—impinges on the safe and mostly privileged world its characters inhabit? What is the significance of Annabel Thwaite’s client DeVaughn or results of Julius and David’s affair? Does the ending make sense when compared with the rest of the novel?

Suggested Readings

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility; Saul Bellow, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; Henry James, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl; Diane Johnson, Le Divorce; Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country; Jay McInerney, Brightness Falls, The Good Life; Dawn Powell, The Wicked Pavilion, Angels on Toast; Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth; Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

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