Life and Death Stuff

Amanda Claybaugh

  • The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
    Picador, 431 pp, £14.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 330 44447 6

The Emperor’s Children is an expansive novel, with multiple plots recounted from multiple perspectives, but it circles around three friends who met more than a decade before at Brown. Like most graduates of America’s elite colleges, they are filled with a sense of their own promise. But now that they have turned 30 they are beginning to see that promise might not be enough. The book of cultural criticism that Marina Thwaite had contracted to write eight years earlier is still not finished, and Julius Clarke’s ‘devastating but elegant’ book reviews have not been followed by a novel of his own. Reflecting on this failure, he suspects that ‘some actual sustained endeavour might be in order.’ The third friend, Danielle Minkoff, works as a documentary producer, and at first glance seems to have achieved more than the others. But she has not yet managed to get a documentary made and spends much of the novel trying to think of a pitch that will succeed: if not slave reparations or revolution then perhaps the dangers of liposuction. Still, Danielle does at least hold a job, which the other two are reluctant to do. ‘I worry that will make me ordinary,’ Marina explains, ‘like everyone else.’ In a novel where everyone is always talking and thinking about ambition, the three college friends give it another name: entitlement. ‘It all came down to entitlement, and one’s sense of it,’ Julius reflects at the novel’s beginning, and Danielle concludes at its end: ‘We’re all of us entitled. Comparatively, I mean. We’re so lucky we don’t know we were born.’

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