An old Master’s painting is rediscovered, changing the world around it once again through both its artistic power and monetary worth. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love is named after the work, a painting kept in the bedroom of many great lovers, used as a gift and exchange, the perfect expression of feeling; through to Nazi raids on Jewish art and the money-fuelled world of auction houses in contemporary London.
I really do wonder how this book ended up on my list, and perhaps even how it got shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. It is charming, a little smart, but is generally dulled by its own genre. It feels like it could be so much, reaching for timeless art, pulling in the creativity of a chef, 20th Century history, and some historical mystery. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark, never quite divulges into these pleasures, just skips over the surface. It has been broadened in its appeal, talked down to make it less selective, rendering it just mostly harmless.
Annie McDee is a lovelorn, quiet culinary genius still reeling from the end of a longterm relationship who has thrown herself out of the countryside back into London life. She discovers a dirty old painting in a junk shop and buys it on a whim, thereby accidentally taking the next step on this invaluable old Master painting’s life. Unfortunately here the narration switches into first person perspective from the painting. It occurs regularly throughout, stretches believability beyond acceptable, and is extremely tiring. Part personality problem, part just giving an inanimate object a personality, this feels like a mistake:
“My master was the poet painter of ideal daydreams; his work as sweet and as free as breaths sent from heaven.”
But Annie is an appealing lead, a beautifully felt character, and the slowly revealed story of her heartbreak running in tandem with a new romance and the revelation of the painting’s true provenance provides an interesting story. There is a whole cast of supporting characters too, all whirring around London, bringing their storylines into the culmination of the novel: the auction of The Improbability of Love.
It is nice, too, how Rothschild meditates on the power of art and the power of the senses. The painting narrates its own influence throughout the centuries as a gift for lovers, its presence in famous bedrooms through history, and how its appeal is based on how it can just beginning to capture and express the reality of a loved experience.
“For both the chef and the painter, creating tastes or scenes from an assortment of base ingredients was a way of navigating the world. She used salt, pepper, vegetables, oils, spices, herbs and meat; he used lapis, lead white, carmine, green earth, indigo, ochre, verdigris and smalt.”
But for all the art and heartbreak and mysterious history, Rothschild makes sure it stays light, keeps it fluffy, doesn’t let us get too serious. It’s disappointing to me, because the topics she could get deeper into are interesting ones, but in the end she consistently delivers a romantic comedy caper. Entertaining, light, mostly harmless.