The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
This book, published in the late summer of 2006 is about New York City. It is also one of the first to include the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I believe, as does Claire Messud, that these attacks have profoundly changed the way we all see the world. Terrorism doesn't just happen in the Middle East any more. It is here. We see the world as a more fragile place, the future unpredictable, that massive change can come in a day. Claire Messud started this book early in 2001, put it aside when her daughter was born, planning to come back to it in the fall.
The events of 9/11 changed the world and her chosen city before the novel was completed. It so changed the lives of the characters she had invented, and she felt that she had to change her novel as well.
The author states "The contemporary novel became a historical novel. I was aware of all the complications of tackling 9/11, but it seemed as though I had to do it in some way."
We will see more fiction in the coming years that will include the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but I must say I found it disconcerting. I felt anxious as I read - I knew what was coming and the characters in the novel did not. I read it dreading the future of these characters, who had become real people while I was under the spell of Claire Messud's wonderful prose. I cared about how these people would fare.
The main characters in the novel are a group of young people in their early 30s. Marina is the spoiled daughter of a famous journalist; she is writing a book about children's clothing and society - trite, to say the least. Danielle is making unfulfilling films - not the important films she wants to do.
Their gay friend, Julius, is struggling to find his place - currently he is the stay at home partner of a financial analyst. They had all gone to university together; they are intelligent, privileged, and still very young for their years.
They are all employed well below the promise of their education and their youthful ambition, they had thought ten years earlier that by now they would be doing meaningful things - but instead they are struggling to become something themselves.
The reader knows that all of their angst is going to pale in comparison to their response to the horror of 9/11.
Into this mix is added Marina's father, Murray. Murray has worked hard for his fame and position, the apartment building on the cover of the book is his 21st century palace. From here he rules over his world and the others circle around. Murray's nephew, Frederick "Bootie" comes into this world, adoring Murray yet hating him for his privileged position.
Bootie becomes disillusioned with Murray and with the world of upper Manhattan, and plans to expose them all - to ruin reputations - professional and personal.
We meet them all in the spring of 2001. As the summer progresses and fall approaches the suspense builds - this suspense ultimately overshadows the end. The post 9/11 chapters are a surprise. But perhaps that is to be expected, how many people in a city of millions were actually at the World Trade Centre? Most New Yorkers were simply living their lives in other parts of the city, watching with horror as the events unfolded.
These characters are forever touched in some way - more or less- by the events of 9/11 and I wonder where they are, how they are now. This expresses how real they became as I read. There will be more books that include 9/ll - it is now history.