Claire Messud's masterful 1999 novel The Last Life, a faux-memoir by the privileged 14-year-old daughter of a French-Algerian father and an American mother, dealt with the false insularity of the sweet life, and the problems of wresting an identity from a family with its own powerful legacy. Those same themes re-emerge powerfully in Messud's elegant social comedy The Emperor's Children, which enters the rarified world of New York's literary and cultural elite, and finds the younger generation floundering and complacent, unable to stake a claim to its own territory. As the title suggests, none of the characters are wearing a stitch of clothing–not the emperor Murray Thwaite, a revered liberal journalist who fails to live up to his principles, and not his daughter Marina and her college friends, whose contributions to the culture are hovering around nil. Though they each suffer harsh appraisal at times, it's a tribute to Messud's empathetic gifts that they come off as fully formed, deeply flawed human beings rather than mere caricatures.
Set over a nine-month period in 2001–the seven preceding 9/11 and the two-month reckoning afterward–The Emperor's Children follows several characters whose entanglements have heartbreaking consequences. The center of her social circle, Marina has moved back home, ostensibly to finish a book on children's fashion in which she's long since lost interest. Her compatriots from Brown are no more settled: Danielle, her closest and most level-headed friend, is a frustrated TV-segment producer, while Julius, a gay freelance critic, secretly works temp jobs to the pay the rent and can't keep a steady relationship. Two rebellious newcomers become catalysts for devastating change: Ludovic, a handsome slickster from Australia, launches an irreverent literary magazine and seduces Marina in the process; meanwhile, "Bootie," Marina's idealistic cousin, moves into the house and becomes Murray's gracious assistant, which leads to disillusioning discoveries.
The characters in The Emperor's Children each seem to represent one "-ism" or another–youthful idealism (Bootie), old-guard liberalism (Murray), negating postmodernism (Ludovic)–but Messud adds enough flesh to those bones to give them life. While she could be accused of wielding 9/11 like a wrecking ball upon their already-crumbling world, the event brings instant perspective to lives that needed to be shaken from their moral torpor. Their bubble needed puncturing, and Messud astutely measures the consequences.