The book I’m reviewing today is unusual: part history, part genealogy. The Hare with the Amber Eyes traces a collection of netsuke through several generations of a family.
But first things first. What are netsuke? A netsuke is a miniature Japanese sculpture that was used as a sliding bead on the string of a container such as a pouch or box. They were intricately carved from wood or ivory into a variety of forms: fruit, animals, tiny human figures.
Edmund de Waal, a British ceramic artist, inherited this collection of 264 netsuke from an uncle who was living in Japan. De Waal grew fascinated with the tiny, beautiful little objects and spent over a year tracking their history within his family. The collection was amassed by Charles Ephrussi, one of the sons of a wealthy Jewish banking family that originated in Odessa but had migrated to Paris and Vienna. Charles lived in Paris, where he was known as an art connoisseur during the period of early Impression and the second empire. He never married or had children, so his collection was passed on to a nephew who lived in Vienna.
For me, the Vienna section of the book was the most interesting: the story of a socially prominent and fabulously wealthy Jewish family during the days leading up to the German takeover of Austria in the late 1930s. It shed a new perspective on a well-known story. The book also documents what happened to the family during World War II and how the netsuke collection miraculously remained in the family’s possession even as the Nazis confiscated everything else of value they owned.
I recommend the book strongly to lovers of both political and social history. It was beautifully written and a fascinating read.
One question that my early test readers of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte asked me was why Betsy wanted to live in Europe so badly. What did she have against her own country?
In our current time period, when the United States is the most powerful country in the world and U.S. culture is a dominant global force, it’s hard to realize what the country was like two hundred years ago. The difference between living in an American city and living in a European capital was like the difference we’d experience between living in small-town Wisconsin and Chicago.
Look at the two graphs below, which I created using statistics I found on the Internet.
To further drive home the difference, here is an image of Paris in the early 1800s:
Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle, via Wikimedia Commons
And here is the description I wrote in the novel of Washington, D.C., in 1804:
The next day, Aunt Nancy took Betsy and Jerome on a carriage tour. After Congress had decided in 1790 to build the nation’s capital in a newly created federal district, President Washington commissioned civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to devise a plan. Originally from France, L’Enfant wanted to construct a city in the European style with important buildings set far apart to allow for public gardens and plazas. At the time of Betsy and Jerome’s visit, the wide spaces between public buildings were occupied by a mix of uncleared land, small plots with cabins, and recently built houses—giving the city of Washington the disconcerting appearance of a sparsely settled wilderness with a few grandiose structures set down at random. Stories abounded of Congressmen going squirrel hunting within the city or getting mired in a swamp as they drove to their quarters at night.
Betsy was clever, ambitious, and interested in art and literature. Is it any wonder she wanted to be in Europe where the action was?