A sense of dislocation and exile is central to Claire Messud's fiction; most of her characters are emotionally and culturally alienated.
In her first novel, When the World Was Steady, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, published in 1994 when she was 28, an American woman is adrift in Bali. Another novel, The Last Life, has a French protagonist who is lonely in America; the characters in the two novellas in The Hunters (another PEN/Faulkner finalist) are an American woman in London and a Ukrainian cleaning woman in Toronto reflecting on her past in a Nazi labor camp.
Messud's fourth effort, The Emperor's Children, out from Knopf in September, with a 100,000-copy first printing, offers another take on lost souls in contemporary society. With deft versatility, Messud has segued from the poignant nostalgia of her previous work into an engaging comedy of manners—cum— timely novel of ideas.
Set in Manhattan, the novel chronicles some months in the lives of three college friends, each convinced that he or she would accomplish great things. A decade after graduation, they are floundering in their careers and in their personal relationships. Self-absorbed, with exaggerated ideas of their own worth and potential, they are alarmed to realize that their sense of entitlement has misled them.
Messud says she was drawn to the theme by her realization that this was the very life she herself expected after she graduated from Yale. She remembers that her generation was "very spoiled and arrogant. We all had grand ideas of what we would become, but no idea of how to fulfill our ambitions."
Her detour began when she did postgraduate work at the University of Cambridge, met the man who became her husband (the literary critic James Wood) and lived in England and Washington, but not in Manhattan's literary community, as she had expected. In her nomadic lifetime, she has had to start over in many places. The daughter of a Canadian mother and a French father who was an Algerian pied noir and whose corporate job necessitated frequent international moves, Messud was born in the U.S. in 1966, but has lived less than half her life here. She has always felt the insecurity of an expatriate. "Not belonging is comfortable to me," Messud says. "That whole sense of impermanence and the nostalgia that goes with it are deeply part of me. On some level, it is part of what made me want to write."
She began The Emperor's Children early in 2001 but put it aside before her daughter was born in July of that year. The carnage of 9/11 occurred six weeks later, and Messud found she had to stop writing for a while. "I wanted to write with some sense of the difference between before and after. I didn't want the novel to be about 9/11; I wanted it to be a novel about people and how life goes on." She does capture the sense of profound surprise and the tremendous shift in the national consciousness. Her characters become aware of their essential loneliness in a new world where boundaries have changed.
Messud and her husband, since 2003, live in a small Boston suburb with their two young children. Marriage to a critic known for his wit and elegant prose (his essay collection, The Broken Estate, is in a Modern Library edition) carries some inherent problems. While Wood doesn't show his wife his work until it's finished, Messud reads her novels in progress aloud to him. "I expect him to be my best friend and my husband and also an honest critic. I want him to say, 'It's brilliant,' and mean it." She dismisses the daunting reality of living with a critic who dissects other writers' prose with an often vitriolic pen. She has a sharp pen herself. In The Emperor's Children her cutting portrait of the New York literati should have them squirming.