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Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children

Biography and Literary Career:

     Claire Messud was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, to a Canadian mother and a French-Algerian father on October 8, 1966. She herself has lived transnationally and often thinks of herself as an outsider. Outsider characters, thus, prominently in her fiction. At the age of four, she moved away from the United States and lived and went to school in Australia and Canada until she was a teenager. At the age of ten, she wrote a short story about a writer who has an out-of-body experience while writing in a garden. This story speaks to her past and current understanding of writing “as a form of travel” (Interview with Gaby Wood, 2006). When she was thirteen, she started high school back in the United States at Massachusetts’ Milton Academy, a boarding school in Boston. In 1987, she graduated with her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Yale University, and in 1989, she graduated with a Master’s degree in English Literature from Jesus College, Cambridge University. She has spent a total of five years in London and, in 1990, worked as a temp at a publishing house there. In 1992, she married James Wood, a prominent literary critic, reviewer, and novelist whom she met at Cambridge. In July 2001, her daughter was born, and she put aside writing The Emperor’s Children, which she started writing only a few months earlier. She begun teaching at CUNY Hunter College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing in 2009 and has taught creative writing at several other schools, including University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. At present, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although she has never lived in NY, she has spent a lot of time there, and several of her friends moved there after college. She and James Wood have two children, Olivia (‘Livia’) and Lucian. Among other accolades, she has been awarded the Addison Metcalf Award, a Strauss Living Award, and Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships. The Emperor’s Children (2006) was her first novel set in America. Her first three books—When The World Was Steady (1995), The Last Life (1999), and The Hunters: Two Short Novels (2001)—were set outside of the country. Her most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs, came out in 2013.


The Creation and Publication History of The Emperor's Children:

     This is Messud’s first best-seller and her first novel set in America. There are several editions and translations of the book available. It was first published by Knopf in 2006. That first edition was followed by the publication of a paperback edition by Vintage Books in 2007, a paperback and hardback by Gardners Books in 2006, a paperback and hardback by Gale Group in a Large Print Edition in 2007, a Kindle edition by Vintage Books in 2006, an Audio edition by Recorded Books in 2006, and a Nook Book edition by Knopf in 2006. Dutch, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Chinese, and French editions of the book are also available. 

     Messud already had the book in mind since 1999, when she decided to write a book about New York. For Messud, the novel represents her parallel life, since many of her friends went off to New York after college and she has always had an affinity for the city (Interview on BookBrowse, 2006). She started writing The Emperor's Children before 9/11 (in the spring of 2001). During the summer of 2001, she had a baby and had to put the book to the side, after only 50 pages in. After 9/11, she abandoned the project and didn’t think she would ever be able to continue it. At the beginning of 2003, however, she continued with the book but started over. She has said that writing this book with small children around was a very different experience for her. She had more difficulty focusing and had to concentrate on one chapter at a time (Dennis Lythgoe Review, Desert News 2006). To understand what her characters would have felt when they looked at the towers fall, Messud researched online photographs and read eyewitness accounts of what it was like to see the planes hit and World Trade Center collapse.

     The relationship between September 11 and the novel is, obviously, complex, especially considering that the direct introduction of the event into the novel is deferred. While Messud believes that, as a result of 9/11, the novel is categorically different from what it would have been had the event not occurred, she does not think of her book as about 9/11: “[…] it really isn’t a 9/11 book for me. I was writing a book about these people, and 9/11 had to come into it. You can’t ignore it. If you’re writing about contemporary America, you can’t ignore it. Its shadow is going to be somewhere in your book, whether it’s over or not” (Interview with Madeleine Brand on NPR, 2006). Instead of categorizing the novel as a novel about 9/11, she claims that The Emperor’s Children is “a historical novel” (Interview with Roseanne Pereira on NPR, 2006). While very significant, Messud points out, 9/11 is only one of many significant events that impact the growth and development of her characters: “[…] there are plenty of things in people’s lives that, to them, are bigger than 9/11” (Interview with Pereira). However, Messud admits that 9/11 changed not only the novel's subject matter but also its style. She has said that September 11 necessitated a change in tone. Initially adopting a satirical tone when she first attempted to write the book, she no longer saw that tone as appropriate in the wake of 9/11: “[…] 9/11 in a funny way helped me be more sympathetic to my characters, and I think to be more indulgent of them and less openly satirical. I think I had more compassion when I came back to it” (Interview with Brand). She characterizes the tone as it now stands as an expression of “tenderness and sorrow,” evidence of her enduring compassion for her characters in spite of their faults (Interview with Pereira).

      According to Messud, the novel is mainly about what she calls “personal myths”; it is about the gap between perception and reality, between one’s self-concept and how one actually functions in the world. It is, for her, a novel about the hypocrisy of a particular social class, the contradictions inherent in all individuals (“their conflicting impulses,” as Messud says in an interview on BookBrowse, 2006), the tendency to mythologize oneself in spite of one’s contradictions. Messud said, “These are characters who are ambitious and trying to project into the world the ideas about themselves that they have inside their heads” (Interview with Brand, 2006).

     In writing The Emperor’s Children, Messud was committed to verisimilitude and the laws of plausibility, attempting to adhere to a realist novelistic agenda. Her goal was to portray her characters “honestly,” having them act as it seems likely they would act if they were free agents in the real world (Interview on BookBrowse). Writing, for Messud, is not only a kind of traveling but also a kind of ritual, which is why she uses the same type of notebooks, a “Clairefontaine notebook” (graph paper), to write all her novels (Interview with Gaby Wood in The Observer, 2006). She thinks of Murray Thwaite as “a part of [her]” but is especially fond of Bootie (Interview on BookBrowse, 2006). Danielle, according to Messud, is “very much a New Yorker” but is unique in that she has seen her life in New York from an outsider’s perspective (Interview on BookBrowse, 2006). Bootie’s “idealism” and desire for purity, his uncompromising moral code, are what inspire Messud’s sympathy and fondness for his character: “You know I, he’s very reluctant to accommodate what he sees as the corruption of the world. He wants things to be pure and to be able to define things as good or bad, and there’s a certain passion when you think that way that I sometimes feel nostalgia for” (Interview with Brand, 2006). Henry James is an important influence on much of Messud's fiction, but she identifies Tolstoy as a more important influence on The Emperor’s Children.


Reception History:     

     The Emperor’s Children was named the Best Fiction of 2006 by The New York Times, was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and received the 2007 Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction. The literary reviews have been mostly positive. The Emperor’s Children has been almost unanimously categorized, generically, as a coming-of-age novel (part of the genre of “very-late-coming-to-age novels”), as a comedy of manners, and as a satire, which is especially interesting given Messud’s claim that she softened the satirical edge. Messud's writing is often compared to Edith Wharton’s, Jane Austen's, and Henry James's, and one reviewer compared this particular novel to Mary McCarthy’s The Group. These reviewers seem to agree that the major theme is the gap between the real and the perceived, and attention is drawn to Messud’s preoccupation with her characters’ personal mythologizing. Unlike the popular reviewers who tend to think that 9/11 is not well incorporated into the novel and that the event does not have a significant enough impact on Messud's characters, the literary reviewers are not so critical of how she incorporates 9/11 into the plot.

     Popular reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, and the Barnes & Noble website have given the novel very average ratings. It was given 2.7 stars out of 315 reviews of the Vintage 2007 edition on Amazon, 2.88 stars out of 13,790 ratings on Goodreads, and 2.5 stars out of 96 ratings on Barnes & Noble’s website. A common complaint is that Messud’s writing is too verbose and digressive, her sentences too long. Messud seems to be writing for an elite and particularly erudite audience; readers tend to feel alienated from the novel and complain that her characters are difficult for them to relate to. Her characters are criticized for their unbelievability and, especially, for their sense of entitlement, indicating, perhaps, that readers tend to overlook the novel's satire and the fact that Messud is, at least to some degree, indicting her characters for their participation in the luxuries of late capitalism. To some, the novel's September 11 ending is no more than a deus-ex-machina, just a convenient way to wrap up the novel. The ending is also criticized for being inconclusive. September 11 does not seem transformative enough for the characters.



Works Cited

Charles, Ron. Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud.       Washington Post 10 Sept. 2006. Web.

Cheuse, Alan. “Novel: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ in New York.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. NPR 29 Aug. 2006. Web.

Hickling, Alfred. “Point of Collapse.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. The Guardian 8 Sept. 2006. Web.

Lythgoe, Dennis. “Author’s Cultural Diversity Enriches Her Fiction Writing.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Deseret News 1 Oct. 2006. Web.

Messud, Claire. Interview by Madeleine Brand. “Sept. 11 Plays a Role in Coming-of-Age Novel.” NPR, 2006. Web.

Messud, Claire. Interview. BookBrowse, 2006. Web. 

Messud, Claire. Interview by Roseanne Pereira. “How Sept. 11 Invaded Her Novel.” NPR, 2006. Web.

Messud, Claire. “Here’s another fine Messud.” Interview by Gaby Wood. The Guardian, 2006. Web.

O’Rourke, Meghan. “The End of Irony.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. The New York Times 27 Aug. 2006. Web.

Proctor, Minna. “Upper stressed side.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Bookforum 2006. Web.

Roiphe, Katie. “Thirtysomething: Claire Messud and the robust genre of the very-late-coming-of-age novel.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Slate 28 Aug. 2006. Web.

Wyatt, David. “September 11 and Postmodern Memory.” Arizona Quarterly 65.4 (2009): 139-151. Web.