By Georgia Edwards | Contributor
Thirty-one year-old Annie McDee is unlucky in life and in love. Following the demise of a long-term relationship, she is stuck in a boring job, saddled with a liquor-addled mother, and wasting time with an unsuitable boyfriend who has an upcoming birthday. Browsing for his gift in a small junk shop, Annie is drawn to a dusty old painting. She purchases it on impulse and plans the perfect birthday dinner for Mr. Wrong—who turns out to be a “no-show.”
Unknowingly, Annie is now the owner of an 18th century masterpiece by the French Baroque artist Antoine Watteau. Titled “The Improbability of Love,” it features a woman on a swing and was painted by the artist following her rejection of his love. The portrait has an illustrious, if sometimes checkered, 300-year past, having graced the walls of potentates to popes throughout Europe. What Annie does not know is that a cast of ruthless characters, motivated by money and fame, are searching for the painting.
Rothschild’s description and development of these personalities shines with wit and searing satire. A reviewer from The Economist sums them up beautifully: “Hannah Rothschild’s romp through the art world is peopled by some horrible characters: venal art dealers, self-important experts, political windbags, lonely Russian oligarchs exiled to London, greedy sheikhs waiting to make their mark on the world and auctioneers so oozing with unctuousness you want to wipe your hands on a clean handkerchief after being introduced.” Added to this unsavory bunch is a 90-year-old billionaire art collector with a suspicious past and a daughter whose veins run with ice. Both have something to hide at any cost.
Annie decides to investigate the origin of the portrait with the help of a struggling artist/museum guide and an art restorer. The process brings a renewed energy to her life, as well as the possibility of a loving relationship. As a shifty and dangerous duo close in on Annie and “The Improbability of Love,” the painting’s most recent history is revealed.
There are two protagonists in this novel: Annie and the painting itself. Rothschild takes a risk by having the piece of art step off the canvas to narrate portions of the story, but it works. The portrait offers its own wry and unique observations, as well as a colorful description of its history.
Few authors were better poised to write a satire about the art world than Hannah Rothschild. The biographer and BBC art documentarian is chairperson of Great Britain’s National Gallery, and members of her banking family have been arts benefactors for generations. In describing her book, she states, “It’s got everything: extremes of wealth, goodies, baddies. Sometimes, while I was writing it, I would think, ‘I’ve gone too far.’ Then I would go into a sale room and think, ‘I haven’t gone far enough.’”
The Improbability of Love is clever and skillfully written, and the reader will appreciate just how far the author takes this fast-paced who-done-it.