Monday, 19 June 2017

Guest review by Julia Jarman: THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE by Hannah Rothschild

Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

Don’t let the first dozen or so pages put you off.

Attracted by the blurb I started reading this novel on a long flight from China. I needed something to keep me awake and looked forward to a light-hearted read in which I learned something about art and the art world.  The prologue, detailing preparations for the sale of a famous picture by Watteau at an illustrious London auction house, was entertaining at first but began to grate. Did I need to know every prospective purchaser and all the members of staff assigned to mind them? It didn’t help that the character through whose desperate eyes we see this line-up is an unattractive oh-so sorry-for-himself penniless Old Etonian, who is in charge of the sale; records must be broken if he is to collect his bonus and restore the family fortunes. Did I sympathise? Hmmm. The chapter ends with a hook hinting at skulduggery to come, which kept me turning the pages. Clearly this auction will not go to plan . . .
Flashback. (Sorry, Colm Toibin, this plot flash, bangs and wallops from Skulduggery Past to Skulduggery Even Further Past and Skulduggery Long Before that, before it gets back to the auction.) In chapter one things look up when we meet chef Annie McDee, thirty-one and broken-hearted, but gamely trying to rebuild her life in London.  Looking for a present for her new boyfriend she comes across an old picture in a junk shop, likes the look of it and buys it.  It is of course THE picture, The Improbability of Love, and the find sets in motion a mostly fast-moving, rollicking tale with more ups and downs and twists and turns than my wonky spiraliser.  

Write about what you know, we’re told, and author Hannah Rothschild knows lots. Part of the fabulously rich Rothschild family, she grew up immersed in fine art and old rich. She went on to study art and made her career in art and the media, which brought her into contact with the new-rich: Russian oligarchs, hedge fund buyers and pop-star billionaires. She has facts at her finger tips that would take most of us years to research and her accomplishments are prodigious. Acclaimed as a hard worker, she has written biography, art criticism, film scripts and documentaries, as well as serving on the board of various art galleries. In this her first novel she writes assuredly, effortlessly it seems - I do mean seems - and evidently enjoys the freedom fiction gives to imagine and invent.

Flashback 2: the talking picture. This for me is her most delightful invention. The picture, The Improbability of Love, is a character in the novel speaking to the reader directly. I love this personification of the conceit that pictures ‘speak to us’, or not of course. The picture speaks to Annie in the metaphorical way which is why she buys it, and that distinguishes her from most of the potential purchasers.  I hear a female voice, by the way, possibly because of the Miss Piggy-ish way she refers to herself as ‘moi’.  I loved the way she described her life going back to Watteau’s first inspired brushstrokes, with detailed portraits of her various owners, some of them very nasty characters indeed. 

The story has a dark side and gives the reader plenty to think about.  It raises the question: what is Art and what is it for?  In the book as in life for some characters it’s merely currency, for others status and for an increasing number it’s a substitute for religion. Next time I go to a gallery I’ll ask myself ‘Why?’

I should perhaps say this is a much commented-on book, well aired on the media and short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  A lot of people love it, but not a friend of mine who knows a lot more about art and the art scene than me.  She says - shock horror - there are mistakes. ‘And did you know there’s no such picture as The Improbability of Love?’

I’m still thinking about that.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about the prologue, Julia. This was a Reading Group choice, and had it not been for that I don't think I'd have continued - there was just too much over-the-top larkishness with all those characters, and a fair bit of stereotyping! But then I did enjoy the novel as it progressed - especially the "voice" of the painting. However (SPOILER ALERT!) it was only when the Jewish art theft element of the plot took hold - a good halfway in - that I felt at all gripped.