Thursday, February 4, 2021

Book Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal, narrated by Michael Maloney (audiobook)

I'm so glad I listened to this! What a wonderful story of art and family and history. Edmund de Waal inherited over 250 netsuke, tiny carved Japanese figures (careful if you google them because a lot are erotic). He's a ceramicist, so he's very interested in art. And his uncle, who lived in Japan, who left these to him, had inspired him to look into them further. His family, the Ephrussis, had lived in Paris and Austria and were wealthy bankers who collected art. They hung out with the Impressionists--were truly friends with them (or so it seemed until it was no longer cool to be friends with Jews.) 

But at the beginning of our story, everything seems lovely with a growing family of art lovers who entertained with Degas and Cassatt and even arranged commissioned portraits by Renoir when he was in financial straits. I thought this book would just be that--lovely and serene and quiet and art-focused. But I should have known better. To get from the 1880s to now, this Jewish family in Europe (Austria, no less!) would have to get through the 20th century. And as World Wars crept closer, the tone shifted. 

It managed to tiptoe around the truly sad, as the family was fortunate, had some foresight, and all of the adult children were living abroad when the Nazis arrived. But it is heartbreaking nonetheless, especially when their "friends" turned their backs on the Ephrussi family. 

Still, somehow these little carvings made their way through the war, to Edmund. From the height of Japanese art as a "fashion" in the Belle Époque, to modern-day England, these precious and fine tiny sculptures managed to stay in the family, intact. It's an impressive feat. I desperately want one. Or ten.

The narrator is particularly excellent, needing to pronounce French, German, Japanese, and an occasional Russian or Italian word or phrase. I now can pronounce "Belle Époque" which I've struggled with for decades, and while I still can't pronounce "Fin de siècle," I now know it can be done. He reads with emotion and yet lightness, and he has such a feeling of investment that it's hard to believe it's not the author himself.

This book is published by my employer (FSG/Picador), however I downloaded this digital audiobook from my library via Libby/Overdrive.

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