I don’t quite know how to “classify” this book. I’m certain and glad it’s non-fiction, to say otherwise would be to devalue the Ephrussi name in some way – or the story de Wall has to tell about his mother’s side of his heritage. I finally chose biography/memoir because that’s essentially what it is – of his family.
The author inherited custody of a collection of Japanese netsuke which had been in the family since the late 19th century. The original owner, Charles Ephrussi, a very wealthy French and Jewish art critic, acquired them during the Japonisme fashion which swept the art world in those times.
Charles gave the netsuke to his niece in Vienna for a wedding gift. This branch of the Ephrussi family was even wealthier but much of it seemed false somehow. And the Jews assimilated as much as could be expected. But the Nazis came anyway.
As I read the first part of the book I realized I wanted to see what was being mentioned and know who the people were so I started checking everything. I threw my findings up in the NOTES section but I got very interested in what was happening and quit doing that after Part 2 – about half way.
What concerns me about the genre is that I think de Waal put a lot of imagination into his story. The larger facts are historical – no problem. But what did his grandmother think about as she folded her beautiful garments? What did his grandfather think as he had to switch careers from art to banking for the family? These are almost like memoirs but more imaginative. It’s really “creative” non-fiction. I usually call that literary non-fiction because the authors usually hold to what is known but use a literary style. In this case de Waal went further. Oddly enough – I don’t care a whit – it’s his family.