The main characters in Claire Messud's new novel are awful people, but such is the writer's skill and empathy in presenting them that you stick with them anyway. The setting is mostly Manhattan in the months before September 11, 2001 an era that seems a lifetime ago and a malaise has settled over the lives of TV producer Danielle Minkoff and her friends. Danielle is 30, and in a rut; as are Marina, the daughter of a famous writer/critic, who's moved back into her parents' sprawling Central Park apartment and is trying to write a book; and Julius, a self-destructive freelance writer. Complicating their lives is the arrival of Marina's repulsive cousin Frederick, called Bootie, who wants to become a luminary like his uncle Murray, despite being self-obsessed (to the point of what feels like mild autism), untalented and in the end, treacherous. Also in the mix is Ludovic Seeley, an ambitious Australian who comes to New York to start a magazine.

Striding over all, like a colossus, is the tall, handsome, wildly charming, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Emperor, Murray Thwaite, who, though benevolent enough to tolerate the intrusions of his spoiled daughter and viper of a nephew, has just enough dishonor in him to start an adulterous affair with Danielle.

One of Messud's tricks for keeping us engaged is focusing largely on Danielle, who's the least awful of the bunch: She has enough discipline to keep a serious, if frustrating job, and she's capable of thinking of other folks besides herself. Moreover, Messud's writing is luminous consider her description of a summer storm at the Thwaites' vacation place, or of Julius' boyfriend beating him up in a men's room. The short chapters rush the narrative toward what the reader knows is coming and the characters can't. Something horrible is going to happen to at least one of them on September 11, and thanks to Messud's compassion, you're surprised to feel that none of them deserves it. The Emperor's Children works as a snapshot of an anxious time in the life of the country.

Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.

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