2010 Memoirs Non Fiction

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Prize

Five words from the blurb: Japanese, carvings, history, family, century

Last year I tried to read The Hare with Amber Eyes, but abandoned it after about 50 pages. I was therefore a bit disappointed when my brand new book club picked it as their first title. Unwilling to be defeated by the very first book I battled through the entire thing. Unfortunately it wasn’t to my taste, but it did at least provoke a good discussion.

The book is a history of the author’s family. Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of tiny Japanese carvings called “netsuke” and, by investigating the way these passed through the generations, he charts the story of his family through the last century. Beginning in Paris in 1871, passing through Nazi occupied Vienna, and finishing in Tokyo; the book gives a detailed history of the family as their fortune changes.

Unfortunately this book was too dry for me. It was very well researched, but the details were of no interest to me:

Ten houses down from the Ephrussi household, at number 61, is the house of Abraham Camondo, with his brother Nissim at 63 and their sister Rebecca over the street at number 60. The Camondos, Jewish financiers like the Ephrussi, had come to Paris from Constantinople by way of Venice. The banker Henri Cernuschi, a plutocratic supporter of the Paris Commune, had come to Paris from Italy and lived in chilly magnificence with his Japanese treasures on the edge of the park. At number 55 is the Hotel Cattaui, home to a family of Jewish bankers from Egypt. At number 43 is the palace of Adolphe de Rothschild…..

I just didn’t care! I wanted to know about the lives of these people – their thoughts and emotions.  I didn’t care who they lived next to or how their house was constructed. 

It probably didn’t help that I have no interest in art or classical music and so the famous names mentioned did nothing for me. I was also well aware of the plight of Jews in occupied Vienna and so none of the details were new to me. There were some beautifully described scenes, but I’m afraid these weren’t enough to make up for the long boring sections. 

The first and last chapters, in which the author described his own thoughts, were the only ones that contained any emotion. I wished he’d been able to inject this emotion into other members of his family. I also wished that he’d been able to include more information about the life of his gay uncle. The story of a homosexual man living in less tolerant times would have been far more interesting than the story he actually told. 

Overall this book was too dry and boring for me. Recommended to those who love the history of art.




My Book Club

The first meeting of my new book club went really well. It was a lovely group of women and we had a great discussion about the book. I was a bit worried about going to the meeting having had such a negative reaction to the first book, but luckily most of the group felt the same way I did! Only one member of the group enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes, but we managed to discuss its positive attributes and its flaws without any bad vibes. I’m looking forward to discussing the next book, Cloud Atlas, and getting to know these lovely women better.

33 replies on “The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal”

I tried reading this last year or the year before and just couldn’t get through it. I maybe made it through half of the book. I have no idea why it got such glowing reviews from critics and book bloggers alike. I even bought a hard bound copy thinking I would love it. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, I found it completely boring.

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, but I don’t know anymore, yours is not the first unimpressed review I’ve come across. I’ve always been quite into art history though so I might give it a try at one point.

Bookworm Chick, If you are interested in art history then you may find enough snippets of information to interest you. Hope you have better luck than I did!

Your summary sounded interesting, quite like other biographies I’ve read (that have been brilliant) but all those numbers… yes to irrelevant content you can’t care about. It’s strange how writers do that, you wonder why they thought it would be interesting. Glad the book club went well, it’s sounds as though you were pretty objective despite the feeling of boredom being almost unanimous.

Charlie, I’m sure that some people enjoy knowing all those little details, but I craved some emotion. It is a great piece of reference material for anyone interested in that particular period of history, but I found it very difficult to get through. 🙁

Phew – this is one of those books that I keep thinking that I really should pick up and read but a little voice inside me tells me that it looks really dull and I wouldn’t enjoy it. You’ve confirmed what I thought all along.

Glad the new book group seem nice though – I love my book group, they’ve introduced me to so many books I would never normally have picked up.

Louise, Finding a good book group is wonderful, isn’t it? I felt exactly the same way as you – it didn’t sound like a book for me, but so many people seem to love it. It is sometimes good to know that the voice inside our head is right 🙂

Tanya, Yes. I remember being a bit suspicious when the book came out. It never sounded like something I’d enjoy, but so many people tried to persuade me otherwise. My gut instinct is sometimes right.

I read this during a readathon last year and was very glad to move onto the next book. I could see what he wanted to do with the book but I felt very much like the blurb promised one thing and the book delivered something else. It does seem like a good pick for a book group though as it’s quirky enough to get lots of thoughts and impressions from around the group.

Glad to hear the new group went well!

Alex, I can’t imagine reading this for a readathon – it was so dense I couldn’t read that much at any one time. At least you had the benefit of getting it out of the way quickly!

I’m SO glad that the first meeting went well for you! You never know, depending on the personalities. Not so great that the first book was one you disliked! But honestly, some of the best book club conversations have been with books that we did not like. It can be fun sometimes to unload!

Sandy, Yes. I do get a weird pleasure from writing negative reviews and from discussing books I didn’t like – especially since most of the group had the same thoughts as I did. It is great that my new book group worked so well. I’m so pleased!

Laurie, That was one of the most extreme examples, but it gives you an idea of the level it stoops to. I deserve a medal for making it to the end!

With a really good bookclub it doesn’t really matter if you don’t enjoy the book, you go on reading because you know there’s going to be a brilliant discussion about it. I belong to one of those, and also to one where people get offended if you don’t like “their” choice. It’s pointless saying that you aren’t expressing dislike of them personally.

Victoria, It is always so hard when people take criticism of a book personally. It is good to know I can have a proper discussion of a book at my book club and people don’t seem to get offended (fingers crossed – perhaps they will if they love the book and I don’t?!)

I was given this book for my birthday by a close friend who I knew would ask me what I thought of it. I found it to be the most unreadable book since the “Life of Lenin. What was I to say? Fortunately for me, a month or two after receiving the gift, the giver apologized for giving me the book based on the criticism of other friends.
Boring? Perhaps. I found it irritating and twee. Thankfully I didn’t shell out for this nonsense.

well I ll be honest I loved it read it nearly one sitting ,for a non writer he painted his family history so well to me and I was interested in the netsuke as objects anyway ,all the best stu

Stu, I can’t imagine reading this in one sitting – there is so much information crammed in there! But I’m glad you enjoyed it. Weird how it divdes people so much. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

I loved it so much that I read it twice. I thought it was utterly absorbing, both as history and as a family saga and it brought 19thc Paris so vividly to life. When I was in Paris a few weeks ago, I made a point of seeking out the Ephrussi house and walking in Charles’s footsteps. And as for his paintings, when you’re reading and you suddenly think, hang on, that’s in the National Gallery – and it’s a work you’ve seen countless times before but never thought about how it came to be there. And I can’t believe that you thought it lacking in emotion, it’s heartbreaking!

I also struggled with the book. Bought it on all the hype and award but found it bogged down in irrelevant waffling about the most uninteresting details.
Have given up at half way mark.

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