The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

This book was so tedious that I would have abandoned it after a couple of chapters if it hadn't been my book club's selection for the month. The writing style wasn't bad—many of her sentences and images were quite good—but the book simply had no content. The story follows a group of whiney, self-centered young people who, despite their privileged lives, complain constantly. The story also follows their parents, who have been fingered as the villains of the piece by the author and the young people themselves. Even though the parents have fallen over themselves giving these spoiled children everything, sent them to Ivy League schools and in some cases continued to cook for them and do their laundry even though the “children” are almost thirty years old, still it must be the parents' fault that these children are not happy. Obviously.

Last week I wrote about making the reader care about the characters, saying that it helped if they were likeable, but that it was not necessary. If this author had set out to write a book that ensured I would not care about her characters, she could not have done a better job.

For one thing, no, I could not like this bunch of drama queens. For another, there were seven equally main characters, with each chapter flipping point of view between them. If you don't stay with characters for more than a few pages, how can the reader get to know them? How can the author dig deeply enough into any one character to present any depth or complexity, any nuance? And that's another thing: in this gaggle of main characters, there wasn't a single one who was more than a superficial stereotype: daughter of famous man who fears she can't measure up, pompous middle-aged daddy having affair with young girl, uncomplaining earth mother who loves hubby despite all, effeminate and promiscuous homosexual man, confused 20-year-old in search of identity.

So much for characterization. As for plot, well, there was a lot of yakking about love affairs and wanting to be special. There were a couple of books and some articles being written, a magazine being prepared. Ho-hum. To manufacture a climax, the author had to drag in the attack on the World Trade Center, not that it was anything more than a backdrop to the lives of these self-centered characters. Who cares if thousands of people die? The important thing is that hubby goes back to earth mother, the magazine launch is OBE, and the 20-year-old leaves town.

Perhaps the author is right and most New Yorkers did react to the attacks on the World Trade Center, not with concern for those who died or for the first responders who put their lives at risk, but with selfish, melodramatic glee: Maybe I knew someone who died! Oh, poor me! Everybody pay attention to me!

I would hate to think that.

It's rare for me to say that a book isn't worth the paper it is printed on, but this one sure isn't. Some people in my book club enjoyed it, although (as one said) it was like reading a tabloid. Someone who used to work in publishing said that the author's descriptions were perfect and only too true. Another member of the book club thought it might be a spoof on the New York publishing industry, but we agreed that it wasn't funny enough for that, citing The Devil Wears Prada as a good example of an industry spoof. Another person suggested that the book itself was a spoof, that the author set out to write a ridiculously terrible book that would not only be published (because it was about the New York publishing industry itself), but also get excellent reviews and become a best-seller. If that was her intent, then she certainly succeeded. What a waste of time.

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