Tuesday 23 January 2018

Hannah Rothchild's The Improbability of Love - A picture-perfect read

Art world: Hannah Rothschild manages to successfully weave the themes of love, art and skulduggery in her novel
Art world: Hannah Rothschild manages to successfully weave the themes of love, art and skulduggery in her novel
The Improbability of Love

A beautiful but broken-hearted chef; a penniless earl; a New York society grande dame; a billionaire art collector with a murky past; a lascivious film producer; a Russian oligarch; and an idealistic artist. The narrative of Hannah Rothchild's, The Improbability of Love, jumps between the lives of all of the above. It sounds confusing, but it's not really, although this is the type of book that lends itself to the sort of long, uninterrupted bouts of reading that a holiday spent lounging in the sun allows for. At over four hundred pages in hardback, is it blasphemous to suggest on a books page that as a holiday read this should be a Kindle purchase?

The plot centres on a painting, also entitled The Improbability of Love, a lost work by one of the eighteenth century's most important painters, Antoine Watteau. It is one of the world's great masterpieces, executed whilst the artist was in the throes of falling in love. It's had a chequered history, owned by aristocrats, royal mistresses and religious leaders, amongst others - a storyit informs us of itself - the painting intermittently narrates the plot in an amusingly spiky and self-regarding tone.

It latest owner is the humbler Annie McDee, the beautiful heroine of the piece, who has been callously dumped by her long term boyfriend. Broken hearted, she has sunk into a slump - aimlessly stuck in a boring job.

Looking for a gift to give a date, she comes across the painting in a junk shop and purchases it on a whim. The date stands her up, leaving her the official owner of the work. Gradually, she begins to look into its antecedents, a process which begins to reawaken her zest for life, and brings her to the notice of Jesse, an artist who falls instantly in love with her.

Slowly Annie begins to come to life again, and embarks on an exciting new career path. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Annie and Jesse, a whole host of characters are also on the search for the work, some merely insalubrious, some downright ruthless. All want the painting; none harbour particularly pure motives - money and fame being the main motivating factors. As the novel goes on, uncovering the painting's most recent history draws us into a world of art crime, and the narrative becomes almost that of a light-hearted thriller.

This is the first novel by Hannah Rothschild, a member of the famous banking family. Soon to be the first woman chair of the National Gallery in Britain, the book is peppered with musings on the nature of art.

It's the sort of thing that in the wrong hands could become boring intellectual posturing, but for the most part, Rothschild manages to wear her knowledge lightly. Occasionally you feel the plot could have moved along a little more briskly - for a light-hearted summer romp it's on the long side. But as that sort of thing goes, it's intelligently and well written, so the occasional slump in pace isn't a major flaw.

Rothschild's previous work has been mostly documentaries, including one about Peter Mandelson, and one biography, The Baroness, about her aunt Nica, who left her husband and five children to spend a lifetime devoted to the jazz musician Thelonius Monk, thereby becoming something of a family pariah.

Rothschild's family history, which involves a family painting collection stolen by Nazi looters, informs the narrative at stages. For a first novel, she manages to weave the themes of love, art, and skulduggery, with a huge cast thrown in, with a very sure hand. Light summer reading at its best.


Liadan Hynes

The Improbability of Love

Hannah Rothschild

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie

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