Unclothed but Not Redressed

The Emperor’s Children

Claire Messud

Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 431 pp.

Claire Messud’s new novel, her third, is, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, a singing, Jamesian beauty. She does it all and does it like a virtuoso: she conjures the heavy particularity of places (Manhattan, Miami, small-town upstate New York, expensive apartments, sleazy dives, gay bars, offices, stairwells, coffee shops, sweaty sheets, freshly ironed shirts) with their smells and sounds and tastes and textures; she renders and dissects the inner monologue of doubt and anguish and love and hope and fear that hums and buzzes agonizingly inside each of us; and she pins like a butterfly the social and emotional world of privileged, rich New Yorkers with intellectual pretensions. Magical, absorbing, riveting: all the usual hyperbole of reviewer-speak is appropriate. Once you’ve started it you won’t want to put it down.

So, yes, the beauty of polished and penetrating prose is there. And not only is Messud skillful at that (rare enough), she’s also smart, well read, abundantly capable of threading a well-turned metaphor cluster through her text to hold it together as an idea as well as a thing of beauty. The idea is sartorial (Carlyle’s spiky Sartor Resartus lurks somewhere in the deep background, and this is only one of dozens of literary echoes, some explicit and some deeply buried), which is to say that it’s about clothes and nakedness: dressing, undressing, redressing; naturalness and exposure;...

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About the Author

Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University.