The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud, is one of the few books I have looked at reviews for before reading. It wasn’t deliberate – I wasn’t sure I had gotten the title right, so I searched Amazon to get the title and author information correct. While I was there, I read some reader reviews, so I knew the most important thing about the book going in: it is set in the months leading up to and the days after September 11, 2001.
On my own, I would never choose to read about those events – I lived in Boston at the time, but saw them happen live on TV. In May 2004, I moved to Manhattan, but didn’t visit the World Trade Center site for the first time until September or October. In November 2004, however, I moved to the Financial District and began taking the E train from the World Trade Center stop to work every day. In November 2005, I moved to another apartment in the Financial District. 3 of the 4 windows faced the burnt out shell of the Deutsche Bank building across a narrow alley had a sidelong view of the WTC site. Many people find looking at the site somewhat upsetting, but I enjoyed watching the construction move forward and felt a part of the rebuilding of the city.
So I was a bit wary starting this novel, but the absorbing story made me forget what was coming until the final chapters. In broad terms, the novel concerns people moving in the rarefied air of literary New York. At the center is a successful writer in late middle age. He is employing a destitute nephew as a secretary, who discovers a secret manuscript, meant to be his lifework. The writer’s daughter is trying to be a writer herself, but he views her as a silly dilettante, not concerned with serious matters. A brilliant young man despises the writer as a bourgeois sellout and marries his daughter. The daughter’s best friend meets with the writer to discuss their concerns about the daughter and falls into an affair with him. Each of these characters speaks in his or her own voice for at least a chapter. Not heard from, however, are the writer’s wife and the friend’s mother. The first might well be aware of her husband’s “indiscretions”; the latter, who arrives to nurse her daughter through a deep depression post-September 11, has her own failed marriage behind her; does she suspect the real cause of her daughter’s pain?
And that is where September 11 comes in. The night before, the writer has slept over at the apartment of the friend/mistress, telling his wife he was in Chicago for a conference. When they awake, with a view down the avenue (similar to the view from my first New York apartment) toward a sky full of smoke, and no towers, the writer realizes he needs to be with his wife and goes home, despite the need to explain that he wasn’t in Chicago. The friend is crushed by his departure. This is the problem – are we supposed to be happy that a terrorist attack made him go straight? Does this really solve anything? All of the people whose heads we get inside are not very nice or very good, which was the source of many readers’ poor reviews. The friend is the most appealing, but when she decides to give in to her best friend’s father’s seductions, which alienates her from her friend’s wedding preparations, she is hard to root for.
Ultimately, I feel like Messud did not intend to exploit the emotional intensity of September 11; she proves adept at eliciting investment from readers, even when the result of that investment is revulsion at nearly all her characters. Still, I would have enjoyed her novel more without its invocation of those events, and ultimately the scale of that tragedy dwarfs and makes cheap the petty lives of the seeming elite. And maybe that’s the point, but it’s hardly a welcome conclusion to 300 pages of investment in their lives.