It took time to put my finger on it, but I worked out that the feeling started when I realised that the collection - 264 netsuke in all - hadn't been lovingly assembled by a connoisseur but bought as a job lot by a staggeringly rich bloke as part of a massive accumulation of stuff. de Waal writes beautifully, but it can't be denied that this is essentially the story of some very rich people buying a lot of expensive things. The family come across as stifled by the sheer quantity of their possessions, brains and imaginations stunted by all this wealth.
Being fabulously wealthy doesn't, in itself, make for interesting characters, and doing nothing much with that wealth beyond spending it on themselves doesn't make for appealing people. I once gave feedback on someone's novel which started with the main character being wealthy, but worrying about paying what would have been a relatively small amount to them. It wasn't attractive, and I recommended either that the character wasn't so well off - or that the amount to be paid would have ruined them.
We can't all be heroic or live dramatic lives. This is a memoir and these people were real. I tussle in my head whether it's fair to judge them for being, essentially, average? For example, the great grandfather who is bored going into work everyday and would rather be doing something else, but continues through duty to the family. Or his wife, married very young, who is only interested in dresses and socialising. The daughter, desperate to get away from her family and escape via education.
I'm sure most of us can recognise people in similar situations, which should give them an appeal, but there is still that nagging sense of 'So what? Why should I care?'
As a reader I may tussle with that in a memoir, but as a novelist I can't allow my readers to feel like that about my characters. So, given that we can understand their situations, what is it that makes me keep the family at arms length? I think it's the lack of balance. The family is wealthy, but they do nothing but the obvious with the money ie spend it. There are no interesting projects to help others, no libraries founded, no good works done.
Does it matter? Yes, even though it is non-fiction. For fiction, the balance would be essential. The rich man would have secret heartache, or perhaps an accident would reverse his fortunes. The socialite would discover the kind of lives lived by most people most of the time and learn compassion and generosity. The bored man would cast off his family duty and live his own life.
The most appealing family members in The Hare with Amber Eyes were, for me, the ones who got away, who rejected the lives they'd been born into.
'Like' is such a general word, it's hard to pin down what we mean by it. Essentially, would we have been happy to spend time in these real life characters' company? For me the answer would have to be, 'they're all right, I suppose, but dull.' And that's not great for any book, no matter how wonderful the writing.