The Emperor's Children is Claire Messud's first Booker longlist entry and, from the reviews, seems like a book breathing life.
The Slate review describes the book as a literary page-turner.
Claire Messud's remarkable new novel The Emperor's Children is that mythical hybrid that publishers dream of one day finding in the piles of manuscripts on their desks: a literary page-turner.You can read an extract of The Emperor's Children here.
The Emperor's Children belongs to the robust genre of very-late-coming-of-age novels—among them Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, Melissa Bank's Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, to name only a few—where adolescence ends somewhere in one's 30s. In the spirit of the genre, Messud's characters seem almost surprised that they should be expected to function as adults, that the promise and precocity of their 20s should not be enough to carry them through. Messud begins with a quotation from Anthony Powell about personal myths, and that is the defining preoccupation of the novel: how our ideas about ourselves collide with the practical demands and degradations of adult life. In fact, her interest in personal mythologies, and how they are reworked and tarnished, is what gives her seemingly banal subject matter its unusual depth
Other reviews: TQC, Guardian, NPR (audio)
A very charming interview with Claire Messud at the LA Weekly is a good way to acquaint oneself with her works and her approach.
Still, yours is a big old-fashioned authorial voice, and it makes a case for serious literary writers reembracing the ambitious, well-written, social-realist novel jam-packed with characters and ideas and plot — and other such undervalued 19th-century pleasures.Claire is married to the famous literary critic, James Wood.
I certainly think that there’s been a problem in separating serious literary endeavor from the profound pleasures of reading. Henry James, of course, never did such a thing, and his novels all have wonderfully convoluted and melodramatic plots: The greatness lies in the prose, of course, but above all in their psychological acuity. But he knew the importance of a great read. Nineteenth-century novelists, of course, in part because of the serialization issue, were very preoccupied with creating satisfying narratives. Then you get into the question of what constitutes a satisfying narrative. I always want my own readers to be both satisfied and challenged.
So what was the germ or seed of this book — or handful of seeds
One was wanting to write an American novel. Another was to write about the world I knew. And then Bootie was always there. For me, he’s the most important character in the book.
I had started this book in early 2001, when I was pregnant with Livia, and I had envisioned it in a certain way. Then she was born in July, and I stopped writing, and then, of course, there was September. I set the book aside, and when I came back to it a year later, it was a different undertaking. One of the problems I’d had in the first instance was tone — it was more knowing than I wanted it to be, more judgmental, more frankly satirical. Weirdly, the changes in the world helped me with that. History dealt my characters a blow that made me more compassionate and even indulgent of their foibles. History passed judgment on the preoccupations of my characters, so I didn’t have to.
Update (Sep 4, '06): Another Messud piece in The Independent.