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Customer Review

on 1 July 2011
This is an academic portrait/biography of the Ephrussi family. And by academic, I mean dry, humourless, passionless and curiously inanimate. Somehow the author manages to take the history of a pretty fascinating family and transform it into a list of objects, dull as ditchwater. Long, long, lo-o-o-o-o-ng descriptions of objects they owned, shopping lists, furniture bought, houses built, places they visited, clothes they owned and so on make up most of the text.

There's very little about the people themselves. The author tries to describe them through the objects they owned but fails, either because he doesn't have enough information or (more likely in my view) he simply doesn't have the writing skills to make the idea work.

What we get instead is an endless list of stuff they owned. Endless. Every generation bought more stuff and he goes on to catalogue it all in this book.

The author can write for pages about interior decorations in one house but manages to say precicely nothing about the inhabitants other than some facts about their lives. Gradgrind aside, facts do make human and this is a loss to anyone interested in this family rather than in their purchases.

The author can write pages and pages and pages of text about correspondence between his aunt and Rillke (without once being able to infuse any emotion) but can dismiss the first world war in one chapter.

It's incredible the amount of historical information available about this family and this book would be great for students wanting to write a thesis about lifestyles of rich families in the past but it's a hard slog for anyone else. One example of the minutae he digs down to: obviously having found tickets (or a diary) the author gives us a list of who went to an opera one evening in May and what they saw. But that's it; just a list of names who went on this date to see this opera, nothing more.

The only place where the book comes a little to life is during the events of WW1 when a little bit of passion, a little bit of humanity slips through. But this chapter passes quickly. The family loses most of its huge fortune following the war and this is explained through a list of things they don't buy any more.

The wave of anti-semitism is explained by descriptions of posters and anti-semitic statements made by various people living at the time. But there's no emotion. No mention of how anyone in the family felt.

That's where this book is sadly lacking. The author may as well be describing the lives of dolls by listing all the objects found in their dollhouse and mentioning articles of events happening at the time of the dolls' existence, but there's no indication that the family he's writing about were ever real.

The only good thing about the book is that because it's simply lists of stuff owned at various times by various people in the family, you could dip in and out of it without ever needing to remember what you'd read before.
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