The Emperor’s Children and other things

I’ve come down with a cold; it’s not a serious illness by any means, but it’s highly annoying and I’m afraid my box of kleenex is about to run out. I refuse to believe that me catching a cold has anything to do with riding outdoors in freezing temperatures; in fact, I probably catch colds as seldom as I do because I do my best to toughen my body up with outdoor rides in freezing temperatures (now that I’ve said that, this cold will probably stick with me for weeks …).

I had to decide this morning if I was well enough to ride; I think I remember a rule that says if you are sick from the neck up it’s okay to exercise, but if you’re sick from the neck down, you should stay home. As it was just my head that was feeling badly, I went. I felt okay on the ride, but let me tell you, riding with a cold is really gross. Let’s just say not having kleenex on hand creates a bit of a problem. I’m trying to learn not to be too delicate and ladylike about snot (me, delicate? ha!) and am mastering the art of … oh, never mind.

I want to write about Claire Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children, so we’ll see if I can finish this post before I drift off to sleep — I’ve taken cold medicine, and although it’s non-drowzy, the stuff still can knock me out. Maybe I can find the magic moment between the medicine starting to work and my eyes starting to close.

I liked this novel quite a bit; it didn’t completely bowl me over or stun me, but it was a good, satisfying read, very well-done, with a good story and interesting characters. It’s about a set of three friends in their early 30s who are trying to figure out what they want out of their lives. You’ve got Marina who has a famous father who is an important character in the book; she’s been working on a book about children’s clothing for years and people are beginning to wonder if she will ever finish it. There’s Danielle, who makes documentaries for TV; she tries to make intellectually serious ones, although her boss nixes some of her most interesting ideas. And then you’ve got Julius, who’s running out of money while trying to establish a freelance writing career, and who’s gay and looking for a serious relationship.

The novel follows these three characters, and also Marina’s parents and her cousin Frederick, called Bootie, who is 18, has dropped out of college, and shows up in New York City hoping to live with and learn from Marina’s father, the famous writer. There’s also Ludovic Seeley, a recent arrival in New York, who is planning on taking the NYC intellectual scene by storm with a new magazine dedicated to debunking myths and exposing frauds.

I won’t say much more about the plot — these characters’ lives get intertwined in complicated ways, and the plot lines are satisfying to follow. The one thing that comes toward the end of the novel that I’ll give away — so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know — is that September 11th happens and disrupts the characters’ lives. I thought this part was well done; the focus is not on the event itself, although that is described quite well, but on how the characters make sense of it, how they negotiate feelings about the magnitude of the event for the whole city and nation and the fact that it has created disasters, small in the larger scheme of things but huge for the individual characters, in their personal lives. How can one complain about career plans derailed and love affairs disrupted with thousands of people having died a horrible death? And yet those personal losses are the losses that feel most real.

I enjoyed this novel as a novel about New York — you’ve got a native New Yorker, Marina, who enjoys privileges her friends both envy and despise, and you’ve got New York transplants, Danielle and Julius, fleeing their midwestern upbringings, and Bootie, coming to the city from upstate New York, trying to leave the nickname Bootie behind and transform himself into Frederick. The book captures the feeling of the city as a place of privilege for some and great opportunity for others, although these opportunities are fleeting and can carry a high price.

Okay, I think it’s time to go take a little rest …

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

11 responses to “The Emperor’s Children and other things

  1. Thanks for the description of “The Emperor’s Children.”
    It keeps popping up on lists I see and people keep recommending it to me, but I had no idea what it was about until I read your insightful blog!

  2. I really enjoyed the book too, I’m a native midwesterner who wouldn’t mind fleeing the weather right about now, take care of your cold…you probably will run out of kleenex if it’s the same one my husband had:-(

  3. Riding with a cold sounds very similar to running with a cold. You crack me up. :) For future reference, I’ve found that the Zicam swabs actually work quite well. It is hard to know for sure, but I think that I have actually avoided a couple of colds this season because I zinced them soon enough.

    I agree with your assessment that the personal losses are the losses that feel the most real. Sometimes personal losses also help us to feel the losses experienced by others. I have not read anything by Messud- The Emperor’s Children sounds worthwhile.

  4. Yes, you’ve also persuaded me to take a look at The Emperor’s Children. Hope the cold gets better soon and well done for venturing out on your bike without feeling 100%. That was brave – I would definitely have gone back to bed!

  5. Del

    I’ve picked this book up a few times in the bookshops now, and each time it seems more interesting. Thanks to your interesting post, I’ve finally decided – gotta have this book. Hope you’ll soon be well.

  6. Glad to hear this is a good book. I feel for you with your cold. I’ve got one too and I “never” get colds. Feel better soon!

  7. It sounds like a lot of people are sick right now. Take care and hope you feel better. Glad to hear the Massud was pretty good. I might take a look at it when it comes out in paperback.

  8. Poor you – I hate being bunged up and unable to breathe properly. I trust you have many good books to keep you company in case you have to take a day off teaching!

  9. I have The Emporer’s Children in my TBR pile. Since I’m homesick for NYC, I think this might do the trick for me ;)

    BTW – I read your post on your visit to the Tenement Museum. A few years ago, I had to accompany my husband to both this museum and the Merchant’s House Museum, after which he had to assess the dichotomy of the upper class lifestyle/architecture versus the lower class lifestyle/architecture in the mid 19th century. I was completely blown away by what I saw and learned. That experience left a lasting impression on me. That’s why I was so excited when I learned that you took a trip there. I just with more people knew about it. These are definitely places that I can visit over and over again.

    I hope that you feel better soon! :)

  10. Thank you David — I’m glad to fill you in on it! Thanks Bookbabie — I’m feeling a little better today and probably will shake this thing quickly (knock on wood …). Thanks for the info on those swabs, Brad — that’s helpful. Thanks Charlotte, and I hope you like the novel if you do end up reading it. Del — I hope you enjoy it too! Feel better Stefanie — I sympathize with how you’re feeling! Danielle, it’s true — tons of people are sick, aren’t they? That time of year I guess. Booktraveller — no trouble there, I have plenty of books to keep my company!

  11. Thanks Amelia — it IS a powerful experience, isn’t it?

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