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This book started out pretty strong, but really picked up the pace at the end. It takes place 6 or so years after a terrible (fictitious) terrorist incident in Vienna in a restaurant in hoity toity Carmel, California. There, Henry Pelham, who has been tasked with determining if there were a mole in the Vienna CIA office during the incident, interviews Celia Harrison, who had been his lover when the incident occurred, but who retired right after the incident, married a much-older very rich (obviously) man, and had 2 children with him. So this is both a personal and professional reunion. I don't really want to say much more. If you like thrillers that are more intellectual than action, this one if for you. I figured out the very first layer, more or less, pretty early on, but there were twists upon twists and I did not figure all of them out right away. By the time I realized what was going on, I was glued to the book and couldn't wait to read to the end. If anyone reads this, please answer the questions in the spoiler.
264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie's Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the 'netsuke', they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined. From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siecle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke's journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century. I'm amazed there isn't a thread already on this book unless it disappeared in the crash for I know several BGOers loved this book, it won the Costa Biography award and got rave reviews but I found it really hard to get on with; It may have been that I approached it with too high expectations, it's been in the TBR bookcase for some time and I was really looking forward to reading it for the book group because we have brilliant discussions which really add to the understanding of a book, but I began to struggle almost from the beginning. It should have been fascinating, it covers so many interesting topics, the Japanese netsuke, Parisian life in the 1880s and 90s for a very rich, very cultivated collector of beautiful things whose wealth didn't protect him from anti-Semitism, Vienna up to the Second World War, the fall of a vast banking fortune.... but a lot of the time despite the subjects it was rather dull. The first section in Paris was far too long, it was full of suppositions 'Charles would have walked...' which were supposed to add life to the narrative I think but slowed it down instead and Charles Ephrussi may have had a wonderful eye for art but he wasn't interesting to read about at length. If I hadn't been reading it for the book group I might have abandoned the book in Paris which would have been a shame as the section on Vienna is easily the most interesting part of the book, both for the descriptions of how the Viennese Jewish community tried to assimilate completely into Austrian life - and failed for many reasons and for the inexorable rise to power of the pro-Nazi factions in Austria. The third section on Japan after the war went back to being far too full of extraneous detail about mundane things with far too little detail on the netsuke are supposed to be the thread that binds all the disparate parts of the book together. I think - and so did several members of the book group when we met yesterday - that though Edmund du Waal is a perfectly competent writer he isn't good enough to tie all the disparate elements of a huge story like this and weld it into a really compelling narrative. It was interesting, I'm glad I read it all and kept with it, I learned a lot and I'll remember it but I'm rather puzzled about why it garnered all that adulation and for me this certainly isn't a keeper.