The Bailey’s Book Reviews: The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

It is a rare thing for me to give up on a book. Generally, I will persist far past the point of enjoyment, not necessarily for completion’s sake, but I wonder if you can truly get a good feel for a novel if you haven’t taken it to the very end.

Today, I have given up on a book, and I feel really bad about it. Those who’ve been following my reviews will know I finished Gorsky, even though I was mostly baffled by its existence and frustrated by the other novel that it could have been. The Improbability of Love has lost me officially at page 215 of 479, though it never really had me to start with. My partner and friends have been telling me to sack it off for days as I’ve been so frustrated by it, and dear reader, I closed the book.

Screenshot 2016-04-03 at 16.20.07

TIOL, as I will now refer to it, is not only the story of a painting but it is the painting, a (fictional) rarity painted by the (non-fictional) Antoine Watteau, lost from the art world and rediscovered by sad-single Annie. The story opens with an auction of the painting itself, where many of the rich and famous are gathering to buy it, with amusing critique of the art world that Rothschild herself inhabits. At the last possible moment, the painting is stolen – aha intrigue! But then the narrative switches back to six months earlier, and Annie’s discovery.

This is where the problem begins, or at least one of the problems. Rothschild reintroduces us to many of the characters mentioned in the opening Prologue who eventually will buy the painting, which ultimately serves to muddy the plot. I regularly wondered who I was supposed to care about. Was it Annie? Was it the painting?

I tell you what, it wasn’t the painting. An interesting narrative device is used by having the painting speak for themselves, though it is scuppered by the fact that the painting is so gosh darn annoying. A mix between Hyacinth Bucket (or Bouquet) and Miss Piggy, the painting regularly refers to itself as moi and repeatedly switches between giving an art history lesson and telling parts of the story from its own point of view. I have never hated a painting in such a way before. The art history bit was actually interesting because Watteau is a painter I personally know little about, so thoroughly enjoyed the information dotted throughout the book but I really feel it could have been better delivered that through the thoughts of an imaginary canvas.

Okay, so maybe it’s Annie we are supposed to care about? But we learn very little about Annie from the beginning, and her life is revealed in rather piecemeal offerings throughout the novel. Her passion for food and cooking could have been presented much earlier, and her history with her ex and the cheese shop she once loved would have served to make us much more sympathetic to her early on. Knowing that she’s a single person living in the same borough as me buying expensive presents for someone she met at a single’s mixer didn’t really let me know much about her, other than perhaps she has a desperate need to be liked by men who are emotionally unavailable?? I don’t even know if the love interest Jesse turns out to fill that role or if her ex did because I really know less about her than we do about her alcoholic mother, Evie, who inexplicably shows up as some sort of MPDG to make Annie actually do things.

Then there are a bunch of other people – Rebecca who is married to Annie’s boss Carlo who cheats a lot but eventually employs her to do fancy dinners; Barty, an ageing gay man who is a fixer-upper of other people’s lives; a Russian exile Vlad who comes to London and doesn’t know how to spend all his mountains of money (poor little sausage); Delores who eats a lot and writes about Watteau, but discredits the painting; Jesse who is an art guide and the love interest, who casually drops that his dad was murdered for his work on painting DNA???? (this is not mentioned again in the first half of the book); Agatha who works on the painting and knew Jesse’s dad and is glad to have him back in her life and is maybe carrying on with the DNA project maybe; Mrs Appledore who … buys things? The point is there are a bunch of people who I know will want to buy it, and we are introduced to them but I literally am not interested in any of them.

All of the characters who are POC, gay or Russian feel like such stereotypes to the point that I felt really very uncomfortable. In the Prologue, the rapper who is a black man brings along many women of colour in his entourage who are repeatedly mentioned as wearing almost nothing, to an auction. No not to a club, to an auction house. Firstly, nah, that doesn’t fly and I feel uncomfortable with you using women of colour as a weird set piece like that; and secondly I doubt no woman is going to miss out on wearing the best gown with the most expensive jewels to an auction house, to this supposed monumental event of the art world. Later, Annie’s previous culinary successes are listed, with a “tribal themed” dinner party being mentioned, shortly after the slur “gypsy” is dropped. Tribal ain’t a thing; a specific indigenous people’s culture and food, yeh. But tribal is just not a thing. Vlad is a disconnected, cold hearted Russian man who murdered his brother by pushing him down a mine shaft, and Barty is a flamboyant old gay man who wears vintage suits and employs beautiful young society girls to be his social secretaries. These people don’t feel real.

Where I had gotten to in the book, Agatha was only just working on the painting and so the world did not know it was a lost treasure yet. And I realised I didn’t care. In the last two days, I have advanced maybe 50 pages. Given that I read almost the entire 700+ pages of A Little Life on a Wednesday shows how little I was into this. I’d just pick up my phone and browse ebay. I did read Watteau’s wikipedia, so this book has taught me a little about art, at the very least.

I feel that this is a book that doesn’t know what it is. At points it is an awkward love story, but it is so slow moving and Annie seems so uninterested in Jesse, I didn’t really care. Too rarely it is a pointed critique on the art world and the consumerism associated with it. Other times, it is an ode to food and I honestly think these are the times the novel was actually interesting and enjoyable. Annie’s feasts, reminiscent of Heston’s Fantastic Feasts, are well researched and made my mouth water. I would happily have read more of that, than read about Vlad.

I recognise that by not finishing the book, I have missed out on what the build up was to, but the issue here is that I was not remotely grabbed by any of it. Instead I was confused by who to care about, didn’t know who I was supposed to root for. It is with a heavy heart that I close this book, write the review and say goodbye to the missing painting, and move on to another Bailey’s Prize book, hoping for better things.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending the review copy over.

Why should it win?

I swore I was only going to keep this part positive, but I am struggling so much. I don’t think it should.

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