The Emperor's Children

The Emperor's Children

2.5 97
by Claire Messud, Steven Boyer

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The Emperor’s Children is a richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune—about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way—and not— in New York City. In this tour de force, the celebrated author Claire Messud brings to life a city, a generation, and the way


The Emperor’s Children is a richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune—about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way—and not— in New York City. In this tour de force, the celebrated author Claire Messud brings to life a city, a generation, and the way we live in this moment.

Editorial Reviews

The poised beauty of Messud’s prose -- neat, clean, and incisive -- permeates this novel of manners about Ivy League–educated New Yorkers familiar with wealth and influence. The author's perspective offers the reader a detailed X-ray and a panoramic view of a tragedy that the characters can see unfolding along with the reader. Infused throughout with surprise and suspense, this is a superb novel by a literary virtuoso.
Michiko Kakutani
In tracing each of these characters’ trajectories, Ms. Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without — showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears. At the same time, she uses their stories to explore many of the same questions she explicated so masterfully in The Last Life questions about how an individual hammers out an identity of his or her own under the umbrella of a powerful family, questions about the ways in which people mythologize their own lives and the lives of those they love.
— The New York Times
Ron Charles
We've all caught glimpses of them before, but Claire Messud has captured and pinned under glass members of a striking subspecies of the modern age: the smart, sophisticated, anxious young people who think of themselves as the cultural elite. Trained for greatness in the most prestigious universities, these shiny liberal arts graduates emerge with expensive tastes, the presumption of entitlement and no real economic prospects whatsoever. If you're one of them or if you can't resist the delicious pleasure of pitying them, you'll relish every page of The Emperor's Children.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Marina Thwaite, Danielle Minkoff and Julian Clarke were buddies at Brown, certain that they would soon do something important in the world. But as all near 30, Danielle is struggling as a TV documentary maker, and Julius is barely surviving financially as a freelance critic. Marina, the startlingly beautiful daughter of celebrated social activist, journalist and hob-nobber Murray Thwaite, is living with her parents on the Upper West Side, unable to finish her book-titled The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes (on how changing fashions in children's clothes mirror changes in society). Two arrivals upset the group stasis: Ludovic, a fiercely ambitious Aussie who woos Marina to gain entr e into society (meanwhile planning to destroy Murray's reputation), and Murray's nephew, Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, an immature, idealistic college dropout and autodidact who is determined to live the life of a New York intellectual. The group orbits around the post-September 11 city with disconcerting entitlement-and around Murray, who is, in a sense, the emperor. Messud, in her fourth novel, remains wickedly observant of pretensions-intellectual, sexual, class and gender. Her writing is so fluid, and her plot so cleverly constructed, that events seem inevitable, yet the narrative is ultimately surprising and masterful as a contemporary comedy of manners. 100,00 announced first printing; author tour. (Sept. 4) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Beautiful, Ivy League-educated, and the daughter of a renowned journalist, Marina Thwaite lives in New York City along with two close friends from Brown: television producer Danielle and freelance writer Julius, who is gay. All three are just barely 30 and making their way into adulthood. Marina has recently broken up with a longtime lover she thought she might marry and is struggling to finish a book whose advance is long spent. Meanwhile, Danielle is returning from an investigative trip to Australia, and Julius is trying to figure out how to make ends meet without admitting to his friends that he's flat broke. Enter Marina's young cousin, Bootie, a college dropout who's decided that life in New York City has got to be better than life in upstate New York. Bootie's arrival in the city is a catalyst for events that will change all their lives forever. Messud's (The Hunters) comedy of manners is extremely well written and features characters that come alive. The reader will be tugged in many directions as these characters' lives intersect in the realms of love, family, friendship, and tragedy. This wonderful read is an insightful look at our time and the decisions people make. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A stinging portrait of life among Manhattan's junior glitterati. In March 2001, a decade after they met at Brown, three best friends are finding it hard to be 30. Danielle Minkoff is the most established, although her job in TV news largely entails cranking out puff pieces on the dangers of, say, liposuction. Freelance critic Julius Clarke wonders how much longer a hip social life can substitute for a regular income. They're both strivers from the Midwest, while Marina Thwaite was born into the liberal elite: Father Murray is a crusading journalist, mom Annabel a dedicated social worker. But beautiful Marina is floundering, at sea in the book she's supposedly writing, about children's clothing, living with her parents after the breakup of a long-time romance. Their uneasy stasis is disrupted by two new arrivals. Australian Ludovic Seeley, funded by a Murdoch-like mogul to edit a new magazine, The Monitor, latches onto Marina, giving her the confidence to finish her manuscript as well as its glib title, The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes. College dropout Bootie Tubb, the 19-year-old son of Murray's sister, arrives from Watertown, N.Y., hoping to learn from his famous uncle how to be an intellectual. Bootie is swiftly disillusioned-unsurprisingly, since Murray's self-absorption is surpassed only by that of his daughter, one of the most narcissistic characters in recent fiction. Messud (The Hunters, 2001, etc.) deftly paints the neurotic uncertainties of people who know they're privileged and feel sorry for themselves anyway; she makes her characters human enough so we don't entirely detest them, but overall, they're a distasteful bunch. In this shallow world, theenigmatic but clearly malevolent Ludovic is bound to succeed, even though The Monitor's launch is scuttled by the attack on the World Trade Center. It's a bit disconcerting to find 9/11 so smoothly integrated into the author's thematic concerns and plot development-it believably motivates the breakup of Murray's affair with Danielle-but five years on, perhaps it's time for this catastrophe to enter the realm of worthy fictional material. Intelligent, evocative and unsparing.
From the Publisher
“A masterly comedy of manners. . . . Splendid.” —The New York Times Book Review“A great achievement. . . . Intelligent and unsparing . . . The Emperor's Children is likely to be one of the most talked-about novels. . . . Buy two copies; give one to a friend.” —The Economist“Engaging. . . . The characters take on intriguing nuances as Messud satirizes and challenges perceived notions of culture, class and social mobility. Her vivid, juicy writing ensures an exhilarating read throughout.”—USA Today“Ambitious, glamorous, and gutsy. . . . A marvel of bold momentum and kinetic imagination.” —Elle“A robust, canny and surprisingly searching novel [told] with a light-handed irony that is, by turns, as measured as Edith Wharton's and as cutting as Tom Wolfe's. . . . Dazzling.” —Los Angeles Times

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The Emperor's Children

By Claire Messud

Random House

Claire Messud
All right reserved.

ISBN: 030726419X

Chapter One

Our Chef Is Very Famous in London

Darlings! Welcome! And you must be Danielle?" Sleek and small, her wide eyes rendered enormous by kohl, Lucy Leverett, in spite of her resemblance to a baby seal, rasped impressively. Her dangling fan earrings clanked at her neck as she leaned in to kiss each of them, Danielle too, and although she held her cigarette, in its mother-of-pearl holder, at arm's length, its smoke wafted between them and brought tears to Danielle's eyes.

Danielle didn't wipe them, for fear of disturbing her makeup. Having spent half an hour putting on her face in front of the grainy mirror of Moira and John's bathroom, ogling her imperfections and applying vigorous remedial spackle--beneath which her weary, olive-shaped eyes were pouched by bluish bags, the curves of her nostrils oddly red, and her high forehead peeling--she had no intention of revealing to strangers the disintegration beneath her paint.

"Come in, darlings, come in." Lucy moved behind them and herded the trio toward the party. The Leveretts' living room was painted a deep purple--aubergine, in local parlance--and its windows were draped with velvet. From the ceiling hung a brutal wrought iron chandelier, like something salvaged from a medieval castle. Three men loitered by the bay window, talking to one another while staring outat the street, their glasses of red wine luminous in the reflected evening light. A long, plump, pillowed sofa stretched the length of one wall, and upon it four women were disposed like odalisques in a harem. Two occupied opposite ends of the divan, their legs tucked under, their extended arms caressing the cushions, while between them one rested her head upon another's lap, and smiling, eyes closed, whispered to the ceiling while her friend stroked her abundant hair. The whole effect was, for Danielle, faintly cloudy, as if she had walked into someone else's dream. She kept feeling this, in Sydney, so far from home: she couldn't quite say it wasn't real, but it certainly wasn't her reality.

"Rog? Rog, more wine!" Lucy called to the innards of the house, then turned again to her guests, a proprietorial arm on Danielle's bicep. "Red or white? He's probably even got pink, if you're after it. Can't bear it myself--so California." She grinned, and from her crows' feet, Danielle knew she was forty, or almost.

Two men bearing bottles emerged from the candlelit gloom of the dining room, both slender, both at first glance slightly fey. Danielle took the imposing one in front, in a pressed lavender shirt and with, above hooded eyes, a high, smooth Nabokovian brow, to be her host. She extended a hand. "I'm Danielle." His fingers were elegant, and his palm, when it pressed hers, was cool.

"Are you now?" he said.

The other man, at least a decade older, slightly snaggletoothed and goateed, spoke from behind his shoulder. "I'm Roger," he said. "Good to see you. Don't mind Ludo, he's playing hard to get."

"Ludovic Seeley," Lucy offered. "Danielle--"


"Moira and John's friend. From New York."

"New York," Ludovic Seeley repeated. "I'm moving there next month."

"Red or white?" asked Roger, whose open shirt revealed a tanned breast dotted with sparse gray hairs and divided by a narrow gold chain.

"Red, please."

"Good choice," said Seeley, almost in a whisper. He was--she could feel it rather than see it, because his hooded eyes did not so much as flicker--looking her up and down. She hoped that her makeup was properly mixed in, that no clump of powder had gathered dustily upon her chin or cheek.

The moment of recognition was, for Danielle, instantaneous. Here, of all places, in this peculiar and irrelevant enclave, she had spotted a familiar. She wondered if he, too, experienced it: the knowledge that this mattered. Ludovic Seeley: she did not know who he was, and yet she felt she knew him, or had been waiting for him. It was not merely his physical presence, the long, feline slope of him, a quality at once loose and controlled, as if he played with the illusion of looseness. Nor was it the timbre of his voice, deep and yet not particularly resonant, its Australian inflection so slight as to be almost British. It was, she decided, something in his face: he knew. Although what he knew she could not have said. There were the eyes, a surprising deep and gold-flecked gray, their lines slightly downturned in an expression both mournful and amused, and the particular small furrow that cut into his right cheek when he smiled even slightly. His ears, pinned close to his head, lent him a tidy aspect; his dark hair, so closely shaven as to allow the blue of his scalp to shine through, emphasized both his irony and his restraint. His skin was pale, almost as pale as Danielle's own, and his nose a fine, sharp stretch of cartilage. His face, so distinctive, struck her as that of a nineteenth-century portrait, a Sargent perhaps, an embodiment of sardonic wisdom and society, of aristocratic refinement. And yet in the fall of his shirt, the line of his torso, the graceful but not unmanly movement of his slender fingers (and yes, discreetly, but definitely there, he had hair on the backs of his hands--she held to it, as a point of attraction: men ought not to be hairless), he was distinctly of the present. What he knew, perhaps, was what he wanted.

"Come on, darling." Lucy took her by the elbow. "Let's introduce you to the rest of the gang."

This, dinner at the Leveretts', was Danielle's last evening in Sydney before heading home. In the morning, she would board the plane and sleep, sleep her way back to yesterday, or by tomorrow, to today, in New York. She'd been away a week, researching a possible television program, with the help of her friend Moira. It wouldn't be filmed for months, if it were filmed at all, a program about the relationship between the Aborigines and their government, the formal apologies and amends of recent years. The idea was to explore the possibility of reparations to African Americans--a high-profile professor was publishing a book about it--through the Australian prism. It wasn't clear even to Danielle whether this could fly. Could an American audience care less about the Aborigines? Were the situations even comparable? The week had been filled with meetings and bluster, the zealous singing exchanges of her business, the pretense of certainty where in fact there was none at all. Moira firmly believed it could be done, that it should be done; but Danielle was not convinced.

Sydney was a long way from home. For a week, in her pleasant waft of alienation, Danielle had indulged the fantasy of another possible life--Moira, after all, had left New York for Sydney only two years before--and with it, another future. She rarely considered a life elsewhere; the way, she supposed, with faint incredulity, most people never considered a life in New York. From her bedroom in her friends' lacy tin-roofed row house at the end of a shady street in Balmain, Danielle could see the water. Not the great sweep of the harbor, with its arcing bridge, nor the ruffled seagull's wings of the opera house, but a placid stretch of blue beyond the park below, rippled by the wake of occasional ferries and winking in the early evening sunlight.

Early autumn in Sydney, it was still bitter at home. Small, brightly colored birds clustered in the jacaranda trees, trilling their joyous disharmonies. In earliest morning, she had glimpsed, against a dawn-dappled shrub in the backyard, an enormous dew-soaked spiderweb, its intricacies sparkling, and poised, at its edge, an enormous furry spider. Nature was in the city, here. It was another world. She had imagined watching her 747 soar away without her, a new life beginning.

But not really. She was a New Yorker. There was, for Danielle Minkoff, only New York. Her work was there, her friends were there--even her remote acquaintances from college at Brown ten years ago were there--and she had made her home in the cacophonous, cozy comfort of the Village. From her studio in its bleached-brick high-rise at Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street, she surveyed lower Manhattan like a captain at the prow of her ship. Beleaguered and poor though she sometimes felt, or craving an interruption in the sea of asphalt and iron, a silence in the tide of chatter, she couldn't imagine giving it up. Sometimes she joked to her mother--raised, as she herself had been, in Columbus, Ohio, and now a resident of Florida--that they'd have to carry her out feet first. There was no place like New York. And Australia, in comparison, was, well, Oz.

This last supper in Sydney was a purely social event. Where the Leveretts lived seemed like an area in which one or two ungentrified Aboriginal people might still linger, gray-haired and bleary, outside the pub at the end of the road: people who, pint in hand, hadn't accepted the government's apology and moved on. Or perhaps not, perhaps Danielle was merely imagining the area, its residents, as they had once been: for a second glance at the BMWs and Audis lining the curb suggested that the new Sydney (like the new New York) had already, and eagerly, edged its way in.

Moira was friendly with Lucy Leverett, who owned a small but influential gallery down at The Rocks that specialized in Aboriginal art. Her husband, Roger, was a novelist. As John parked the car outside the Leveretts' large Victorian row house, Moira had explained, "Lucy's great. She's done a lot on the art scene here. And if you want to meet Aboriginal artists, to talk to them for the film, she's your woman."

"And he?"

"Well"--John had pulled a rueful moue--"his novels are no bloody good--"

"But we like him," Moira finished firmly.

"I'll give him this much, he's got great taste in wine."

"Roger's lovely," Moira insisted. "And it's true about his books, but he's very powerful here in Sydney. He could really help you, if you needed him."

"Roger Leverett?" Danielle thought a moment. "I've never heard of him."

"Not surprised."

"As in 'our chef is very famous in London.' "

"Come again?"

"There's a nasty-looking little Chinese restaurant in the East Village with a handwritten sign in the window--a dirty window, too--that says 'our chef is very famous in London.' But not in New York, or anywhere else outside of London."

"And probably not in London either, eh?" John had said, as they approached the Leveretts' front door.

"Roger Leverett is very famous in Sydney, sweetheart, whatever you say."

At supper--prawns and quails' eggs with squid-ink noodles, followed by emu, which closely resembled steak and which she had to force herself to eat--Danielle sat between Roger and a beautiful Asian boy--Ito? Iko?--who was the boyfriend of an older architect named Gary at the other end of the table. Ludovic Seeley sat next to Moira, his arm languidly and familiarly draped over the back of her chair, and he leaned in to speak to her as though confiding secrets. Danielle glanced over every so often, unable to stop herself, but did not once, until the passion fruit sorbet was before them, find him looking her way. When he did, his spectacular eyes seemed again amused, and they did not waver. It was she who lowered her gaze, shifting in her chair and feigning sudden interest in Ito/Iko's recent trip to Tahiti.

The evening now seemed to her an elaborate theater, the sole purpose of which was meeting Ludovic Seeley. That anyone could care for Lucy or Roger or Gary or Ito/Iko in the way Danielle cared for her friends in New York seemed almost implausible: these people, to her, were actors. Only Ludovic was, in his intimate whisperings and unbroken glances, very real. Whatever that meant. Reality, or rather, facing it, was Danielle's great credo; although if she were wholly honest, here and now, she believed a little in magic, too.

Roger, beside her, was jovial and solicitous. Mostly, Danielle felt her host was a narcissist, delighted by the sound of his own voice and the humor of his own jokes, and by the pipe he fiddled with and sucked upon between courses. He was generous with the red wine, more so to her and himself than to those farther afield, and he grew more positively loquacious with each glass.

"Been to McLaren Vale? Not this time? When do you leave? Ah, well then. Next time, promise me you'll get to South Australia, do the wine route. And there's great scuba diving off the coast. Been scuba diving? No, well, I can see you might be intimidated. I used to do a lot of diving in my day, but you can get yourself in some very nasty situations, very nasty indeed. About twenty years ago--I wasn't much older than you are now--how old are you? Thirty? Well, you don't look it, my girl. Such fine skin. It must be those fine Jewish genes--you are Jewish, aren't you? Yes, well, anyway, the Reef. I was up diving with some mates, this is before Lucy, she'd never let me do it now. I was living up near Brisbane, finishing my second novel--Revelation Road, you probably don't know it? No, well, I'm not vain about these things. It was a great success at the time. And anyway, this trip out to the Reef was the reward, you know, for a job well done, the editor was jumping up and down in Sydney he was so mad about the manuscript, but I said, screw it, George, I'm entitled to celebrate before I come back, because once you're in this world you're in it, aren't you? So where was I? The Reef, yes. It was my first time out there, by helicopter, of course--first time in a copter, if you can believe it--and we were four blokes . . .&


Excerpted from The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Claire Messud was educated at Cambridge and Yale. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her most recent book, The Hunters, were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor's Choice at The Village Voice. All three of her books were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship, and is the current recipient of the Straus Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

Brief Biography

Somerville, MA, USA
Place of Birth:
Greenwich, CT, USA
BA in Comparative Literature, Yale University, 1987, MA in English Literature, Jesus College, Cambridge University, 1989

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Emperor's Children 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 97 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've been trying to like this book, really I have. The long, protracted sentences with the stream-of-consciousness asides between the dashes have driven me nuts. I keep waiting for it to get better, and came here to read reviews to see if I had something to look forward to. Apparently not - the characters remain as self-absorbed and stereotypical as I have already assumed, and apparently nothing clever happens through the rest of the book. I won't finish it - there are too many other books waiting!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The title is a quote from this novel, and I could not have asked for a more appropriate line. This novel focuses on a group of people that seemingly classify themselves as the 'social elite' of the ever popluar New York. What they really are is a group of people lacking a conscience, and conscienciousness, for their surroundings, their loved ones, and life in general. Their only concerns are selfish, though they pretend to all, including themselves, that they are of a higher moral level than anyone else on the planet. Their personal relationships are false and shallow, as are their lives. I believe the main aim of this book was for the author to congratulate herself on her extensive vocabulary, thus perpetuating the idea that this novel is only for the most elite of the literati. Guess what - I am a normal American citizen with a decent, though not Ivy League, education, and I know all of those words, too. I also worry about normal things like car payments,the weather forecast and what I need to buy at eh grocery store, unlike Messud's characters who never have these concerns. If you like to pat yourself on the back for reading a drab novel about self-important characters, than this book is for you. If you like novels that not only entertain but open up a new point of view or dialogue on interesting subjects, please, move on.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure where the reservations about the author's elegant prose style come from. The sentences are long but well-constructed and don't require rereading. If you can negotiate Dickens, Austen--or Philip Roth, for that matter--you'll be fine. And the vocabulary isn't particularly demanding. However, the book is partly a satire, and if you require a character with whom you can identify, you might find the book off-putting for that reason. Messude is poking fun at these shallow people.
-Pentabulous More than 1 year ago
Claire Messud is a brilliant writer with great descriptive powers. She has crafted a snapshot of several months in the lives a group of friends living in New York City. The problem for the reader is being able to care about any of these dysfunctional characters enough to make the book rise above the tediousness of their self-centered lives.
cathy_dawn More than 1 year ago
I'd heard this was a marvellous book, but thought the characters were shallow and spoiled for the first few chapters. I stuck with it, and the depths of their stories were revealed. Truly amazing people, in normal lives (albeit priveleged and quite 'new york'), experiencing the frailities and struggles everyone does but with an intelligent quizzical mirror held up against themselves. You know their faults, admire their strange and marvellous achievements, and you see their mistakes coming, cringe for them, and sometimes hope for them (even the ones you find distasteful). When I finished I sat still for about 1/2 an hour, just stunned by how affected I was by their stories and by Messud's gentle, thoughtful, deeply quiet and quietly deep writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We have six members in our book club. I was the only one able to finish the book. Everyone else gave up. Please do not waste your money. This was the most boring book I have ever read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
More than anything I was captivated by the slow and subtle development of the characters, all of whom reminded me of people I have known .. somewhat ordinary people living NOW in that 30-40 age group who are educated and in some sense worldly and sophisticated, and yet have not quite found themselves. I thought it very well written - there were some very lovely turns of phrase - and there were enough surprises to keep me interested. Finally I liked it for the fact that it made me think: about the nature of relationships, of heroes, of fallibility and of humanity.
Benecap More than 1 year ago
I rarely read a book twice. But I will be doing so shortly. This book I found hard to put down. The characters are real. The egos easy to see if you have ever been in the business world. Danielle reads like someone I knew. As others have ask. Read the book through!
cea391 More than 1 year ago
This was a good book- a decent read though a little long winded at times. The characters were intertwined and the stories wove into each other and kept me interested.
M_S75 More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent novel. To potential buyers turned off by other reviewers, many of them admit they didn't finish the book. The ending makes the novel.
Hazel-LMS More than 1 year ago
I couldn't get past page 37. The author thinks in commas- what a horrible waste of mind space. I found myself twitching and hyperventilating from the torture of commas and paragraph long sentences. Just couldn't take it anymore and threw the book in the trash at page 37. I can become very engaged in any book, on any subject matter if it is well written. This was pure torture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unlike everyone it seems, I really enjoyed this book. Yes, the beginning was long and it took awhile for the plot to unfold but once I got through it, it was difficult to put this book down. The ending was amazing, not what I expected but a good ending. It was hard to read at first, as each chapter started with a new character. Once you caught on though it is a great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very good. Everybody complained about the character development and the story line but i found it to be entertaining. Maybe that's what the author had in mind. This didn't have to be some deep, moving novel about a group of thirty somethings in New York. It could have simply been an entertaining look about the shallow , overly dramatic lives of a bunch of upper class people living in the city and i found it amusing. For me it played out the like a soap opera on paper. It's all in good fun. Yes the author did have long winded sentences with an enormous amount of vocabulary but what's a story about shallowness and pretension without a little of it thrown in the writing style? In my opinion the book had me hooked on that whole story line and the shallow, egotistical characters. And for those who say the story line was slow just give it a chance until all the characters start to interconnect. That's when things really start to get interesting.
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A luminously written novel of very young "adults" trying to find their way and their identities in New York.
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