The Premise: unlucky-in-love Annie unassumingly buys a painting for a man. She ends up keeping it. Unbeknown to her, it’s a famous painting. Cue lots of stuff about art dealers, Russian billionaires and forgery.
Happy Bookworm: The Improbability of Love is quite exquisitely written; it reminded me of Nancy Mitford in its style, which is a very good thing. Ostensible main character Annie is a sympathetic focus for the reader; at the beginning, she’s quite drippy, but, as the plot develops, so does she. Her relationship with her hard-drinking and unreliable mother is one of the novel’s most fascinating subplots, and the story that develops around the feasts Annie makes based on paintings is inspired. It inspired me, anyway, or, more specifically, it inspired my appetite. In the presentation of poor, sad Annie, I was reminded of Scarlett Thomas’ books, namely PopCo and the lovely Our Tragic Universe, although Annie is ultimately roused to greater action than the protagonists of either of those novels.
Rothschild uses one of the most bizarre narrative tricks I’ve witnessed, having the painting itself – the eponymous Improbability of Love – narrate from a first person perspective at intervals. It’s initially too weird and seems like a witty trick too far, but as the painting’s history is revealed, it sort of makes sense for the work of art itself to tell us about it. It doesn’t stop being odd, but a bit of oddness never hurt anyone, did it?
Sad Bookworm: it’s not so much ‘sad bookworm’ as ‘confused bookworm’ in the case of this book. It took me a long time to get into, partly because of the continual shifts in narrative perspective, and I didn’t care about all of the characters. The Russian guy, for example, could have been removed entirely and it would have made no difference at all to the plot. The cast of characters is massive and I’m not convinced that this was necessary.
The pace is a bit plodding too. It’s not a particularly action-packed story, which is completely fine, but having to be introduced to seven thousand characters does not help to add any impetus.
In Conclusion: I nearly gave up on The Improbability of Love a few times, but persevered on the assumption that, having been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize, I must have been missing something. Overall, I think my enjoyment just about shaded my frustration in reading it, but it was a close call.