If Jo Walton ever had to make an elevator pitch for her novel, Tooth and Claw (Orb Books, 2009), she might have said that it owes a great deal of its sensibility to the tropes of the Victorian novel, except that the main characters are dragons. Which is not to say that her book is in any sense a mashup (do not, for example, think Abraham Lincoln and vampires). Rather, it’s a melding of two cultures — humanity and dragonity. (And, as near as I can tell, the main difference between the two cultures seems to be that dragons ritually eat their dead to share their wisdom, strength and power.) As Walton herself put it, the novel is “the result of wondering what a world would be like if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.” As I love both fantasy and Anthony Trollope,Tooth and Claw was simply irresistible to me. Walton begins with the bare outlines of the plot of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage: A father dies and his survivors begin a fight over his bequests. One son, a parson, hears his father’s last confession and learns a fact that he chooses not to divulge to the rest of the family; another son decides to contest the original will. Meanwhile, the two unmarried daughters become pawns of the male-dominated society. How will it all work out? Will the good get their just rewards and the evil be punished accordingly? Walton’s captivating tale is not to be missed.
Category family saga
Every once in a while, I run across a book that has such wide appeal that I can easily imagine giving copies to nearly everyone on my gift list. One such book—and my favorite work of non-fiction this year—is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. The author, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, contemplates the history of his ancestors—a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family—from the latish 19th century through World War II. He uses as the linchpin for his discussion a collection of 246 netsukes, miniature ornamental carvings (including one of a hare with amber eyes), which were originally collected by the first Charles Ephrussi, and handed down from generation to generation. In the process, the collection moved from Japan to Paris to Vienna, back to Japan, and thence to the author, in London. The Ephrussis were a cultural force both in Vienna and Paris. You can see what was once their house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse even now. Charles was a patron of many artists and writers; he was also the model for Swann in Proust’s great novel, and he appears in Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he’s the man in the back, in profile, with a top hat and a reddish beard). I’m giving this book to friends and family who love history or biographies or art or visiting and/or reading about Paris or Vienna; to those who enjoy family sagas and, especially, to anyone who appreciates graceful, understated writing. And those who love books with family trees. Kudos to the publisher, FSG, for producing a book that’s both a pleasure to hold and behold.