The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

3648Fiction — print. Vintage Books, 2007. 480 pgs. Purchased.

Nominated for both the Man Booker Prize in 2006 and the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction in 2007, Messud’s novel was also named a best book of the year by The New York Times. All the stickers on the cover of my copy had me intrigued when I saw it for sale at the library book sale back in July.

On the surface, the title of Messud’s novel is drawn from the title of one of the character’s book, The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes. However, the title is also named thus for the focus of this novel — the emperor, Murray Thwaite, and the ‘children’ under him who dance at his whim and keep him thinking he’s wearing clothes. I could try to be cute and ask if Messud is wearing any clothes because that’s what popped in my head when I was gone reading this book, but it appears that somebody on GoodReads beat me too it.

Why do I ask this? Because the book is — painfully — overwritten. Too many details; too many commas and run-on sentences. Granted, there were bits and pieces where I  could see why the book has received so much praise. And while the lack of premise or plot almost had me giving up at one hundred pages, I kept reading because…

Well, I’m not really sure. The characters are not redeemable in any way; I hated them all. Murry, the emperor, is supposed to be this all-inspiring, intellectual man that is the liberal conscience of the United States, but his actions towards his daughter and her female best friend make him come across as a fraud. And maybe this is the point; an expose of how the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

His daughter painfully attempts to follow in her father’s footsteps (a spoiled thirty-something and her friends seeking greater self-importance), and the illicit romance he starts with his daughter’s best friend continues to show that the emperor is nothing he is stated to be. Ludovic Seeley? Bootie Tubb? Terrible names for another emperor and the one trying to show that the emperor is not who he appears to be. And there’s also a promiscuous gay man thrown into this mixing pot of plots and characters.

And then 9/11 happens. I was not expecting this event. There were no clues that this was the year 2001, which I guess is more accurately reflective of that year in real life. However, the characters become stagnated in their lives, in their development over this event (which is, granted, a large and stagnating event for those who experienced that day first hand) and any hopes of redemption were dashed.

The book did make me pause; it did make me finish it. Yet in the end, I finished the book feeling completely unsatisfied. For what it’s worth, after reading the blurb on the last page of my copy, I find myself wanting to read Messud’s other novel, When the World Was Steady.

Others’ Thoughts:


  1. Lu

    I listened to this book, so while I too felt like it was overwritten, having it read to me masked a lot of that. While I was listening to this book, I thought I hated it. I had a similar experience to yours, where I thought about giving up, but something kept me reading and something kept me thinking about it even after reading it so long ago. I think I can generally put this one in the “thought about it, a lot” category, if not exactly the “liked” category. Thanks for linking to my review!


  2. I quite liked this – didn’t love it, but liked it. I liked the grumpy old cat and the descriptions of the painting in the flat. Also liked some of the email conversations. I’d read more by Messud.


  3. Huh! I own this book but apparently didn’t really know what it was about. I bought it used because I’d heard relatively good things about it, but now I’m not so sure it’s my kind of book. At least not soon — I just finished a book I kind of felt the same way about!


    • I didn’t really know anything about it either, apparently. I was expecting something completely different from what the novel turned out to be (i.e. I did not know that 9/11 would come into play).


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