When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered. Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by art dealers with mixed motivations, exiled Russian oligarchs, fixers, museum chiefs and wealthy patrons all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’. Uncovering the painting’s past will not only uncover an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history… and unfortunately I can’t say much more about the plot without spoilers and I won’t do that to you!
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild has been generating a lot of buzz, increasing since its inclusion on the 2016 shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s not every day that you can read a satire on the art world by a banking heiress who includes ‘Chair of the National Gallery’ on her impressive CV, and it’s hard not to wonder how many of the walk-on parts in this novel are inspired by real people. Her family also had more works of art stolen during World War II than any other (over 3000 pieces), and the reverberations of art theft in this dark era, the correlation between the possession of art and power, are felt throughout this novel.
You get accustomed to the ridiculously OTT feasts, parties and reckless displays of wealth – particularly in scenes with the oddly lovable fixer Barty (Barthomley Chesterfield Fitzroy St. George no less) who bandies around with billions and thinks anything less than raucous conspicuous consumption is common. While the plot is sometimes a bit over the top there’s a lot to learn here too. The painting in question is fictional; the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, is not. Along with Watteau’s backstory we are treated to information on authentication and restoration techniques that are woven into the plot well. The painting itself is a character in the book, and it is through the chapters it narrates that Rothschild makes clearest that the relationships between wealth, power and art are not a 21st century phenomenon. Despite this, there is an impassioned case for the restorative nature of art throughout, after all
…in a declining, degenerate, money-obsessed era, where even Mammon lets most down, art has become a kind of religion and beauty offers a rare form of transcendence.
Books centred around art are having a bit of a moment – I’m thinking of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Ali Smith’s How To Be Both and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World in particular. There are ways that this book compares unfavourably to all three of these, yet at the risk of seeming to damn with faint praise Rothschild has produced something more readable than any of them. I don’t regret the time I spent on a sunny bank holiday with it, and feeling how I do about bank holidays that is praise indeed! It is an irreverent satirical romp, though oddly sweet in places – and the next time I am in a gallery I know I will wonder what conversations the painting have amongst themselves when the great unwashed leave them in peace once more.
The Improbability of Love is published by Bloomsbury. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.