'The Improbability of Love' by Hannah Rothschild: EW review
A picture is worth a thousand plot points in Hannah Rothschild’s bright, champagne-fizzy satire of modern romance, human avarice, and the booming international art market. The book’s namesake—and the object of nearly every character’s obsession or transgression—is an unassuming 18th-century pastoral by the doomed French rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. (He was real; this particular painting is fiction.) Made for a beautiful muse who never returned his affections, The Improbability of Love went on to live a singularly starry life after Watteau’s death—spending three centuries in the gilded company of philosophers, courtesans, and kings before landing incognito and abandoned in the back of a London junk shop.
It’s there—buried behind piles of moldy hardbacks and mismatched tea sets—that a young aspiring chef named Annie McDee plucks it out on a whim and purchases it from the shop’s indifferent proprietor for 75 pounds. Reeling from a bad breakup and distracted by the demands of her terminally tipsy mother, Annie props the picture in her living room and pretty much forgets about it. But when a museum docent gets a glimpse and realizes that Love may be more than a cheap reproduction, a race to possess the lost masterpiece begins. Billionaire sheikhs, society doyennes, self-absorbed academics, and exiled Russian oligarchs circle the prize, though the most dangerous player may be the one who held it last: a powerful art dealer whose nearly priceless collection has its roots in a mysterious and very shady past.
Rothschild knows her subject firsthand; she comes from one of the world’s wealthiest families and has spent decades moving in the rarefied circles depicted here. That gives the novel its insidery spark and smooths over some of her sloppier narrative tricks. (Dear Annie: When your voicemail is flooded with urgent messages, check them.) The best of many sharply drawn protagonists may be the painting itself, an endearingly anthropomorphized diva slyly unfurling its own storied history—and gazing down from its canvas perch on the silly flesh-and-blood mortals who continue to fight and chase and cheat and love, against all improbability. B+
OPENING LINE “Though she often passed Bernoff and Son, Annie had never been tempted to explore the junk shop; there was something uninviting about the dirty window….”