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Kingsley Amis and David Lodge hilariously skewered academic strivers, while Saul Bellow—in Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift—fashioned something almost Shakespearean from their anguished tirades. Straddling these extremes, Claire Messud turns the grappling for ideological supremacy among two generations of intellectuals into a riveting comedy of manners. Thirty-year-old Marina, the brainy, ravishing only child of a celebrated journalist, returns to her Upper West Side home to complete a possibly worthless book on the cultural implications of children’s fashion. There she falls for an iconoclastic editor who dismisses her beloved father as “a tiny, pointless man roaring behind a curtain.”

To the eternal themes of love, ambition, and shifting alliances, Messud applies a twentieth-century psychoanalytic gloss: Marina is “her father’s Anna Freud,” and the anxiety of influence hovers menacingly over all that transpires. Fortunately, Messud’s insights are nuanced enough that her flawed luminaries survive as more than mere types. Even minor characters like Marina’s mother, an elegant social worker who has a “posh singsong” voice and is discomfiting in her “very niceness,” make their mark. Gradually, Messud—wife of the literary critic James Wood—converts academic hairsplitting into a matter of larger consequence, extracting considerable suspense from the young cultural pretenders’ attempts to topple the old guard and wrest an erotic prize.

The brinkmanship makes for an excellent read, but some of the pretentious declarations grow tiresome. (“You shun my efforts at gallantry? How shaming.”) And Messud misguidedly concludes with the obligatory 9/11 denouement, which compels her Manhattanites to shelve their vainglorious projects and engage in collective hand-wringing. But at least she maintains the thread of her earlier themes in the last, uneven chapters, finessing a cheeky exposé of the pundit class in all its privileged splendor.

Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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