The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

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The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: From the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlist, an enchanting debut novel that blends art and cookery, mystery and romance. Annie McDee, a heartbroken PA and amateur chef, pays £75 for a painting from a junk shop, not realising it's a lost work by Antoine Watteau that will spark bidding wars and uncover a sordid chapter of history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781408862476

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Shortlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

It's set to be the sale of the century: Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs, rappers and heiresses are all lined up to bid for The Improbability of Love, a small Antoine Watteau oil painting depicting a courting couple overlooked by a clown. The painting was missing until six months ago, when Annie McDee bought it from a junk shop for £75 as a birthday present for an incompatible fellow she met through Internet dating. When he didn't show for dinner and the junk shop mysteriously burnt down so that she couldn't ask for a refund, the painting became hers. Thirty-year-old Annie had been in a rut: after a painful break-up from Desmond, with whom she ran a cheese shop and café in Devon, she moved to London and was working as a PA to randy Italian film director Carlo Spinetti. She also acquired an unwanted roommate: her alcoholic mother, Evie.

Now, with a promotion to interim chef for Carlo's wife, Rebecca Winkleman (who, along with her father, Auschwitz survivor Memling Winkleman, is a wealthy art dealer specialising in Old Masters), things seem to be looking up for Annie. She eschews Rebecca's standard diet of steamed fish and vegetables and takes a chance on recreating a medieval Italian feast to accompany the sale of a Caravaggio. It comes off brilliantly, like one of Heston Blumenthal's 'Fantastical Feasts'. What's more, on a trip with Evie to the Wallace Collection to compare her painting with those on display she meets Jesse, a tour guide and amateur painter who's as entranced with Annie as he is with her painting. Together they consult an expert art restorer and tackle the mystery of the painting's provenance.

In a triumph of playful narration, we mostly learn about the artwork's history from the painting 'herself'. She recounts her turbulent 300-year-history and lists the many illustrious owners she has had, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, George IV, and Queen Victoria. 'My history is strewn with sex and love and lust and even a dead body or two,' she boasts. Watteau was inspired by his infatuation with dancer Charlotte Desmares and changed the painting's title from The Glory of Love to The Improbability of Love when Charlotte spurned him. These are the novel's only first-person sections, and they create a charmingly snobbish voice. You can just imagine a voiceover from Helen Mirren or Judi Dench being used in a film adaptation: 'let's not forget that I am the hero of this story. And far more interesting than food. And longer-lasting than love,' she brusquely interjects.

The novel has a large cast of characters who are involved in the art world or wish to be. Along with Barty, a Cliff Richard-like guru who teaches the nouveau riche how to act wealthy, especially by getting into art; and Vlad, the rich Russian thug he takes under his wing, there are multiple art dealers, restorers and investors. There are perhaps a few too many secondary characters, and when it emerges that the painting was stolen from its Jewish owners by a Nazi art squad, the novel goes into rather too much detail about this historical incident and how it came to light. This all means that the novel feels overlong, by a quarter if not a third of its length. I think it could have been liberally trimmed and focused more around Annie without losing much of its sparkle. All the same, you'll probably be enjoying the story so much that you won't notice a little bit of narrative drag.

Hannah Rothschild is, yes, one of those Rothschilds – the eldest daughter of Baron Jacob Rothschild, part of the venerable banking family. A writer and documentary filmmaker, she is also the chair of the National Gallery and a trustee of the Tate Gallery. It's no surprise, then, that she knows and depicts the art world just as well as she does the world of the super-rich. Her debut novel is an enchanting hybrid, mixing art and cookery, mystery and romance.

Further reading suggestion: For a funny take on the lives of the super-rich, try Number 11 by Jonathan Coe. For more historical cookery and mystery, we recommend An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey. You might also enjoy Paper Swans by Jessica Thompson.

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