I’ve said before that my reaction to books is often affected by the context in which they’re read. Unfortunately Hannah Rothschild’s Improbability of Love will always be associated, for me, with the bleakness of my country’s vote to leave the EU. I can’t go into my feelings in depth here; I only hope that we find a way to mitigate the disastrous divisions in our society and to keep our relationship with Europe strong. In the meantime, we just have to keep our chins up and hope for the best. And so; back to the book.
The Improbability of Love, with its glimpses into the upper echelons of the art world and the existence of the super-rich, has become something of a cause célèbre and has enjoyed glowing reviews in the press. The author is the daughter of Jacob Rothschild, the banker, philanthropist and hereditary lord of the sumptuous Waddesdon Manor (even though the house is now in the care of the National Trust). She has been a trustee for numerous museums and public bodies and is currently chair of the National Gallery’s board of trustees. In short, the lady knows whereof she speaks.
Annie has fled a failed relationship in Devon and is trying to make a new life for herself in London as a chef. When her philandering boss loans her to his wife – Rebecca Winkleman, member of a powerful dynasty of art dealers – it finally looks as if she might be able to achieve her ambition to create elaborate, mouthwatering banquets that are just as much about art as food. Rebecca herself, outwardly cold and inwardly anxious, is trapped by her heritage, shackled into the family business, watched over by her domineering, taciturn father Memling. Nearby in St James’s, Earl Beachendon – destitute nobleman and chief auctioneer at the auction house Monachorum & Sons – is desperately trying to find the one big sale that will restore the board’s faith in him. Across town, the newly-arrived Vlad Antipovsky is wondering where to start. A political exile, he is mindbogglingly rich but desperately lonely, tormented by memories of his past and driven to paranoia by the need to keep on the right side of his Leader. And, at the Wallace Collection, the wannabe artist Jesse is making ends meet by giving tours of the paintings galleries.
All these people will be brought together in the most unexpected way by one tiny object: the yellowed old picture that Annie picks up in a junk shop one day as a gift for her on-off boyfriend. When she takes it to be examined by a professional, somewhat unwillingly, she hears to her astonishment that she may have stumbled across something rather marvellous. But Annie can’t even begin to imagine what the repercussions of her discovery will be. She is only one of several people who want her little picture – a lost Watteau titled The Improbability of Love – and her innocent ownership draws her into a web of dark secrets, where people are prepared to kill to prevent the truth from coming out.
This novel is currently enjoying a lot of success among what I suppose you’d call the ‘chattering classes’, because it buys into popular ideas about the venality and skulduggery of the art world, where everything is for sale and people will stop at nothing to achieve their aims. Plus, several of the characters are thinly disguised versions of real people and there’s a lot of fun to be had in guessing who the others might be. In some ways it feels rather like a fictionalised version of an art-world Tatler. But all this meant that I didn’t really enjoy it anywhere near as much as I expected to.
I think part of the problem is that it feels too close to home. I’ve worked in a grand old auction house like Monachorum, and I know people like those who are featured in the book, and it feels as if everything has been pushed up to eleven to make an effect and elicit scandalised gasps from its readers… at the expense of its soul. The superficial glitz and plotting, verging on Grand Guignol, sits alongside a story which (apparently) wants to be taken seriously as a moving narrative. The two spirits of the novel don’t always sit happily together. Unfortunately I just wasn’t able to engage with any of the characters, except for odd flashes of empathy with Annie, and I found the painting’s own narrative voice rather prim and unappealing. There were also rather too many cases of conversations being used as infodumps for details about artists and techniques, rendered in ways that didn’t quite sound authentic as speech.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t actively dislike the book, far from it. There were some great scenes, especially Annie’s fantastic banquets – who wouldn’t want a dinner party themed around Caravaggio?! – but I just didn’t warm to it. And it was great to have even a fictional peek behind the scenes at some of London’s museums and galleries, although I must point out that the British Museum doesn’t actually have any of the Watteau drawings described in the novel (nor are there turnstiles going into the study room, for what it’s worth). But it’s fiction, isn’t it? Doubtless I’m taking it too seriously.
I’m puzzled at the fact I don’t really have a clear opinion, because of all the books I’ve read recently, this is the one that I am best qualified to judge. I am also sure that I would have had a very different reaction if I’d read this at a time when my mind wasn’t clouded with other things, so for that I must apologise. If you’re in seek of upper-class art-world escapades, or if you enjoyed The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner, then you will probably have fun with this book. But its magic just didn’t quite manage to waft me away.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.