Everyone has at least one relative who needs to learn Ben Franklin's maxim that "visitors, like fish, stink after three days." But even Great Uncle Jim at his worst never reeked with as many repercussions as Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, the would-be devoted nephew in Claire Messud's absorbingly intelligent new novel The Emperor's Children.
As far as Marina Thwaite is concerned, her cousin is a most unwelcome house guest, both on aesthetic grounds and because he might distract her father from that most fascinating of topics: her.
Bootie, who had the brains but not the bank account for Harvard, has dropped out of the State University of New York at Oswego, declaring higher education a farce. Instead, he plans to become an autodidact (despite an inability to finish reading a novel) and worship at the feet of his uncle, Murray Thwaite, a celebrity journalist. To this end, he crashes at his uncle's upscale New York apartment, where Murray, out of pity, hires him as his secretary and where Marina, out of shuddering revulsion, avoids him.
The 30-year-old also has moved back home and is also failing to finish a book. Marina has spent five years "writing" about children's fashions: "about how complex and profound truths – our mores entire – could be derived from a society's decision to put little Lulu in a smocked frock or tiny Stacey in sequined hotpants."
Unfortunately, Marina can't remember a time when she was interested in the subject; even more unfortunately, she spent her advance from the publisher years ago. Her problem is not laziness; it's her own inflated expectations.
"Marina would not put her name – on her first book, and she her father's daughter – on something of which she was not proud, even as she had come to doubt that pride in this effort was possible."
Marina is the most privileged of three college chums who hover on the outskirts of New York intelligentsia in 2001. Months before Sept. 11, they are all questioning their choices and life goals.
Danielle works as a documentary producer and searches fruitlessly for love; Julius is a gay freelance critic who makes ends meet by temping.
Marina's arrested state worries the other two, even as her air of unearned superiority irks them. "The idea that at 30 Marina couldn't point even to a futon or a folding chair and claim it as her own was ... faintly pathetic," Danielle thinks one evening, as her friend pays for Chinese takeout with her father's credit card. "Yet Marina , in her parents' kitchen, did not appear pathetic; the thought didn't seem to have crossed her mind."
After all, she comes by her air of entitlement honestly: Her father, the "emperor" of the title, is lousy with it.
As the year progresses toward fall, the three main characters' lives take a darker turn. Not surprisingly, Murray has a few detractors, such as Ludovic Seeley, an Australian who's moved to New York to start a magazine. Despite his contempt for Murray, Ludovic makes a play for Marina. Danielle tries to warn Marina – but Marina decides Danielle just wanted Ludo for herself.
Danielle is the most sensible, but she also makes staggering mistakes in love: One of the things Murray felt entitled to was her. Bootie blunders into this mess, finally grasps that Murray isn't worth idealizing and enacts a betrayal of startling harshness and naiveté.
Messud gets across Bootie's total isolation and lack of emotional intelligence, but she never explains how the teen got this way. The other characters, however, are terrifically rendered – especially Marina and Murray, who could have been monsters of selfishness. Instead, Messud is adroit in handling their insecurities and inner emotions. Her writing is so sure-handed that she doesn't even stumble on the hurdle of the Sept. 11 attacks (although the book ends too abruptly thereafter), and her exploration of entitlement is both witty and astute.
"Marina, feeling entitled, never really asked herself if she was good enough," Julius notes. "Whereas he, Julius, asked himself repeatedly, answered always in the affirmative, and marveled at the wider world's apparent inability to see the light."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.