Or, what not to read while your husband undergoes emergency brain surgery.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
First, let me say that it is not Claire Messud’s fault that I read her book while experiencing all the terrors and discomforts of various hospital waiting rooms, medical procedures, and the receipt of shocking, life-altering news. In light of that, I suppose it’s not her fault that I found her subject matter completely trivial, her characters pretentious and (almost) entirely unsympathetic, and the whole text one colossal exercise in navel-gazing. It is not her fault that, faced with my husband’s (very) possibly imminent demise, I chose to read her book. So the fact that I did not like the book, was in fact vaguely disgusted by the book, and had to force myself to finish the book is probably due more to context than to text. But. I didn’t like the book.
Three friends find themselves facing thirty and wonder what they’re doing with their lives, where all their promise and talent and possibilities went. I’ve felt this way myself (not when facing thirty, but at other watershed moments), so it’s certainly a relatable and worthwhile personal struggle. However, it’s a struggle with which I’ve grown impatient. If you don’t like your life, change it. If you’re not changing your life, you must like something about it, even if it’s just the familiarity or predictability of its awfulness. I am generally very sympathetic to other (real) people’s struggles, recognizing that what’s easy for me may be hard for someone else, and what’s hard for me (read: math) is probably easy for many other people (read: my husband and everyone with whom he works). However, when Messud trotted out the changes or problems facing her characters, I just wanted to roll my eyes. Poor little Ivy Leaguers. It turns out life might be a teensy hard after all, huh, even if you can name drop? Poor babies. And September 11th is tucked into the conclusion of the novel almost like a deus ex machina, but really more like Rudy Giuliani during the 2008 primaries. The novel is set in 2001 in New York City. Yes, now your characters have (relatively) more gravitas because they’ve experienced something. Does anyone else see that a catastrophic event like 9/11 shouldn’t have to happen in order for characters to have substance? Or for people to have it, for that matter? The best thing about this book was a character named Bootie, who was almost charming in his clueless repulsiveness, but most of the things that were great about Bootie owed a great deal to John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces (a delightful book that you should all read).
I don’t like to write mean reviews (because really, what have I published that’s so great? Nothing. And karma can really come back to bite a person.) so I’ll stop there. Messud has a lovely, polished style and is clearly a very competent writer. Maybe some other time when I’m more inclined to care about the heartaches of the rich and famous, I’ll revisit this novel with more pleasant results.
P.S. For concerned readers who know me but are out of the loop– he’s just fine now, thanks. More changes are surely coming, but no worries.