I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on November 3rd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Contemporary Women, Action & Adventure
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: First to Read
Buy on Amazon
Exploration into the meaning of art and the ephemeral nature of love + a satirical look at the business of art, with a colorful cast of characters and a relatable heroine.
For someone else, it could be a great life: interesting, exciting and relatively free of worry. The problem is that it doesn’t happen to be the life I want. It isn’t the way I planned it. Somehow the scripts got muddled up. I, Annie, am supposed to be living in a little village outside Tavistock with the love of my life, running a company that we set up together. Somehow or other I got ejected out of my story halfway through and ended up in another person’s life; I don’t want to be here a second longer. I am too old, too scared for this existence. It’s meant for a younger, braver kind of person…the lonelier she got, the less adventurous she became.
The Improbability of Love is written by Hannah Rothschild (yes, those Rothschilds), the current chair of the London National Gallery’s Board of Trustees. She is very passionate about art and that is reflected in in her writing. She has written a few blog posts about her inspiration for this novel and you can find those at this link.
Annie, a chef who is truly an artist when it comes to food, is down-on-her-luck and her life has veered way off course. She thought she was in a relationship with the love of her life. When she is unceremoniously dumped, she is forced to start over again in London. One afternoon she buys a quaint little painting in a junk shop, in hopes of impressing a new suitor. The suitor stands her up and the painting remains in her possession. Her innocent purchase of a valuable work of art (fictional piece, real painter) sets off a chain of events and puts her in the sights of a powerful art dealer who is desperate to repossess the painting and keep its tainted history a secret.
I have noticed that the moment people become rich and achieve their earthly desires they enter a painful, spiritual vacuum. Few wealthy people turn to religion. What’s the point when it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven? Instead they often look to the soothing power of beauty. Art makes mortals feel closer to heaven…I once met a cynical painting by Courbet who said the rich bought art because they had run out of other things to spend their money on. A Corot claimed that it was copycat syndrome—just do as others do. Nothing drives men crazier than the inability to possess.
The book begins at a London art auction, “the sale of the century.” We are introduced to a colorful cast of bidders, each who have very different motivations for wanting to add The Improbability of Love to their assets. The prologue is overwhelming with all the character introductions, but I urge you to stick with it! The story actually begins six months before the auction, with Annie finding a painting in a junk shop. The bidders are slowly weaved into the story along the way, some with bigger parts than others. The bidders all have over-the-top personalities, but have just enough character to be endearing.
The difference between a good and a great work of art was down to an almost indistinguishable series of largely unidentifiable factors: the élan of a brushstroke; the juxtaposition of colours; the collisions in a composition and an accidental stroke or two. Like a rolling stone gathering moss, a painting gathered history, comment and appreciation, all adding to its value. In its relatively short life, Annie’s little painting, all eighteen by twenty-four inches, had accrued so much admiration and history that it had become surrounded by a halo of accumulated desire, bumping its value up to dizzy heights.
The writing was wordy and dense. There was an academic quality to it at times. I had to use my dictionary and Google Translate a little more than usual! For those reasons, I think people who aren’t very interested in art history or culinary pursuits may have more trouble getting into this novel than those who do enjoy those topics. I was a Fine Arts major (one class away from an Art History minor) and I spend way too much time looking for new recipes to try, so this book was right up my alley. This book would have made an excellent required reading in my college classes, because it really brings the philosophical questions about art to life. What is art? What is the difference between good art and great art? What makes art valuable? What does art teach us about mankind and ourselves as individuals? What is it about a painted piece of canvas that can spark bidding wars and violence? Who do the great works really belong to? As we learn in The Improbability of Love, a piece of art is more than just its physical form; it carries a piece of each of its owners with it.
My little theory is that at the heart of all human anxiety is the fear of loneliness. It starts with their expulsion from the womb and ends with a hole in the ground. In between it’s just a desperate struggle to stave off separation anxiety using any kind of gratification—love, sex, shopping, drink, you name it. My composition is about the fleeting, transformative respite over aloneness that love offers despite the cold certainty that this reprieve is only transitory.
Much like the painting, the book deals with the transient, and sometimes cruel, nature of love. All the characters are somewhat broken due to the fickleness of love: Evie who fell apart after her husband’s death, Annie who is just going through the motions after Desmond left her, Jesse whose love for Annie seems destined to remain unrequited, Rebecca Winkleman who is in an nontraditional marriage with a man who she doesn’t want to live without, Memling Winkleman whose passion for a woman could put an end to the art dealing empire he worked so hard to create. It also handles familial love, particularly that between a child and a parent: Annie’s enduring love for her alcoholic mom who constantly disappoints her (“Annie’s urge to care and protect her mother is as strong as Evie’s need to self-obliterate.”), as well as Rachel’s compulsive need to please to her father (“He was a monster, but he was her monster, an inextricable part of her past, present and future.”)
If I tell you that the man’s face is composed of only seven strokes of a brush you’ll laugh and remonstrate that this can’t be so; but that is why my master is a genius and why his star is still in the firmament of great artists nearly three hundred years after his death. He understands the alchemy of red and pink and pearly white. More importantly, he understands mankind, and he can, like great artists, translate our innermost joy and fear into something tangible.
This wasn’t a novel I raced through, but one that I had to put down every once an a while and let simmer. The story is mostly written in third person omniscient (the narrator slipping seamlessly through each character’s life), but there are occasional first person views from the painting itself. It even talks to other paintings when it gets the chance! I was put off by this at first, but it was actually pretty neat. It was an interesting perspective through which to view the paintings history. Imagine all the crazy stories artwork could tell if they were sentient! I really liked the direction the novel took, once we found out the secrets that were hiding in the painting’s provenance. Discovering the mystery of the painting’s history, despite the lengths taken to keep it a secret, was really exciting. I was really disappointed when I realized there were only a few more pages left at that point! The book was little heavy on the set-up and a little light on the wrap-up.
Don’t be shocked by this apparent self-reverence. As you know, my canvas is covered with the brushstrokes of a genius and overlaid with centuries of desire, love and avarice. Each of my owners added an intangible but indelible stratum: the first was my master’s outpourings; the second was his friend Julienne’s fraternal affection and these two were followed by the admiration of the great and the downright ugly; even young Annie added a little bit of magic. These layers of appreciation, though invisible to the human eye, are detectable to those with particular powers of intuition and sensitivity
This is one of those book where the more I think about it, the more I like it. If you have some time and you are really interested in fine art and culinary art, I’d recommend this book. If you liked the subject matter of this novel, you might want to check out the movie Woman in Gold.