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A Family's Century of Art and Loss

A-The Hare with Amber EyesEdmund de Waal is a professor of ceramics at the University of Westminster and the author of works on Bernard Leach and 20th-century ceramics. The Hare with Amber Eyes is a chronicle of five generations of the eminent Ephrussi family--de Waal's ancestors--whose affluence and authority rivaled that of the Rothschilds in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Topic: Employing their passion for art as a guide, de Waal explores the opulent rise and devastating fall of the Russian-Jewish Ephrussi family, whose fortune was founded on Ukrainian grain in the mid-19th century. Among them are Parisian dandy Charles Ephrussi, an early patron of the Impressionists, who served as an inspiration for Marcel Proust's Charles Swann, and his Viennese cousin Viktor, who was forced to give up scholarly pursuits to oversee the family business when his older brother absconded with their father's mistress. Hitler's 1938 annexation of Austria ultimately ravaged the Ephrussis' banking and shipping empire. All that survives of their fabulous wealth are 264 exquisitely carved wooden and ivory figurines--Japanese netsuke--that a loyal maid hid from the Nazis.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374105976

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"As with [Marcel Proust's] Remembrance of Things Past, [The Hare with Amber Eyes] uses the grandeur to light up interior matters: aspirations, passions, their passing; all in a duel, and a duet, of elegy and irony. For de Waal, art is the purest expression of these interiors." Richard Eder

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[De Waal] not only succeeds in walking his readers into those opulent [palace] rooms, but in reviving their occupants for us. ... The Hare With Amber Eyes is a wondrous book, as lustrous and exquisitely crafted as the netsuke at its heart." Heller McAlpin

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"We all know the dates, and events on those dates, yet De Waal's description of the Anschluss and after comes as an absolute shock: the palais breached by night, the initial smash and grabs. ... ‘Objects have always been ... stolen, retrieved and lost. It is how you tell their stories that matters.' He has told their story wonderfully." Veronica Horwell

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Its narrative is skillfully plotted and switches lightly from restrained feeling to objective historical or geographical facts. It has intellectual rigour as well as an engaging hesitancy, similar to that which gives [de Waal's] pots their gentle imprecision." Frances Spalding

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Whichever time or place he is writing about, he is attuned to its atmosphere, whether it flows from the surprising beauty of Odessa or the sudden manner in which both war and empire thundered to a halt in 1918 Vienna." Gerald Jacobs

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Hare With Amber Eyes belongs on the same shelf with Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, André Aciman's Out of Egypt and Sybille Bedford's A Legacy. All four are wistful cantos of mutability, depictions of how even the lofty, beautiful and fabulously wealthy can crack and shatter as easily as Fabergé glass or Meissen porcelain--or, sometimes, be as tough and enduring as netsuke, those little Japanese figurines carved out of ivory or boxwood." Michael Dirda

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"De Waal's well-researched story gets bogged down in plush details of bourgeois life, while descriptions of visiting mansions formerly owned by the Ephrussis seem repetitious. ... The Hare With Amber Eyes teaches us that rich people, unless they are related to you, can be even more boring than poor people." Benjamin Ivry

Critical Summary

"A duel, and a duet, of elegy and irony" (Boston Globe), de Waal's extraordinary family memoir brings his forebears vibrantly to life. To augment his research, de Waal visited his surviving relatives and toured his ancestors' palatial homes, and these intimate explorations, relayed in self-assured and unsentimental prose, imbue his story with the solemn, awe-inspired air of a pilgrimage. The critics praised this sensitive and richly detailed history, particularly de Waal's powerful account of the Nazis' atrocities. While the San Francisco Chronicle, the sole voice of dissent, found de Waal's story boring, the Christian Science Monitor declared that "there isn't a dull moment" in it. The Hare with Amber Eyes--part biography, part travelogue, and altogether a rip-roaring good story--should appeal to readers as well.