What a wonderful book! A good friend recommended it to
me in the spring and I added it to my summer reading plan.
For some reason, a lot of other selections barged their way in
and I didn’t decide to start this one til last week. The library
had two copies–one that was a trade paperback, and one . . .
that was about the same size but very heavy! Turns out it
was the illustrated edition. Boy! am I glad I chose that one.
I’m not sure how many more illustrations it had than the
“regular” one, but this one had lots—and it’s so much more
enjoyable to have a guided tour!
This is a true story—the author inherited 264 Japanese netsuke
passed down through his family. The writing is the story of the
hunt, the history of this collection, and the writer is led from
Paris to Vienna to Tokyo, and then finally to Odessa and
London. What an eye opening journey it turned out to be.
The Ephrussi family of Odessa–some who emigrated to Paris, and some who went to Vienna– met with great success in business in the early 1900s and became very wealthy. Along the way, Charles, the author’s great-grandfather, became interested in Japanese art and purchased a lot of it, including netsuke.
The book is rich in describing the collections of Charles—not only the
netsuke, but also of the impressionist paintings which he fell in love
with–and his casual circle of friends who included Proust. Whee! you
have to love this stuff! To house the netsuke properly, he bought
a black vitrine—a glassed cabinet. The author surmised what
Charles’ apartment in Paris might have looked like:
The ugliness of World War II, and the German invasion of Austria
bring about the destruction and theft of most of the collections of the
wealthy, including those of the Ephrussis and they are lucky to leave
with their lives.
Somehow, (I know how), the collection of 264 netsuke is kept intact and
hidden and saved. It’s almost the most remarkable thing about the
I loved the story of the netsuke and the descriptions. Even though I
found the pieces themselves– small ivory or boxwood carvings small
enough to fit in the palm of a hand– sometimes rather eery or off-
putting, the gentle story of the way they’d been loved from one
generation to the next kept the subject matter dear.
I found that an included family tree of the Ephrussis was invaluable
to the reading, and I promptly copied it so that I’d have it nearby as I read.
Please include this book in your book club list—I plan to encourage
our club to read it next year. And, I was lucky enough to bump into
Edmund de Waal on a UTube piece about writing the book. He said
he wasn’t sure if the reason for writing it was “self, place, or memory”.
Interesting. Whatever the reason, I’m so glad he wrote it.
Four button review!