A lovely, lovely gem of a book that refuses to be closed for even a minute. It begins with an auction- a lost masterpiece of the 18th Century by French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, the guy credited with founding the Rococo movement. The glamorous, the filthy rich and the hangers on are all on the prowl determined to own a piece of history that once hung on the walls of Katherine the Great and Madame de Pompadour. Hundreds of Millions of pounds to prove to the world that you have taste and class and most importantly, deep pockets.
The narrative then backtracks to reveal how the painting came to be re-discovered after being happened upon in a grotty junkshop by Annie, an almost destitute aspiring chef. She forks out the last £70 she has to buy it as a birthday present for an unsuitable man met at a singles' art dating event. He stands her up and so her fate (and that of many others) becomes tangled with the painting.
It's such a readable book- despite its genteel façade, it's incredibly action packed. It's not long before the reader is drawn into whirlwind of authentication and research; down at the Wallace collection where she meets Jesse, a lovestruck guide and part-time painter; some long-shot detective work as Anna pores over sketches and monographs in the British Library, trying to determine if her painting is a worthless copy or something else. She totes it around London in a carrier bag, to her day job cooking steamed fish and wilted spinach for the Winkleman dynasty, a family of ruthless Art dealers with a dodgy past. In a 400 page novel we are lavishly treated to Louis XIV style banquets, musings on the nature and subjective worth of art, legacy destroying secrets, Nazi loot, royal scandals, lots of detective work, shady cloak and dagger murders and a desperate dash for evidence and acquittal. We see the coiffured, silken lives of the disgustingly rich and the Spartan lives of the modern artist. It's quite the whirlwind.
I loved the characters in this book- they were so easy to care about. The heart-broken starting-again Annie and her sumptuous banquets of art-inspired food, her alcoholic mother who shows up just in time to ruin everything, sweet, awkward Jesse who is head over heels for Annie within seconds of meeting her. And Rebecca Winkleman, the insecure ice-queen dominated by her patriarch father, schooled in Art History from nursery age, ruthless and steely who thinks nothing of sending an innocent employee to prison to keep the family reputation intact. Most notable perhaps is the voice of The Painting, the Improbability of Love itself. Sassy, sarcastic, kind of pretentious and hugely characterful, the painting gets the chance to tell its own story, of camel caravans, looting and theft and royal palaces and all the things its seen in its 300 years on walls. It knows and revels in its power to inspire love (it has quite the track record) I loved this idea- a completely new perspective of history that nobody living could ever recount.
I really liked the book's musings on the value of art, how subjective art is and the contradictions around its purpose and worth. It argues that art is an indicator of good taste; some people will buy a painting owned by a king of a queen and congratulate themselves on sharing the impeccable, refined tastes of a dead monarch. They will pay record breaking sums to be part of the club. But art has intrinsic value too; it's a window into human emotion. Recurring themes of misery, pursuit, suffering, rapture, love and lust (unrequited or mutual) have been depicted since mankind first figured out how to smear pigments on cave walls. The modern viewer, looking at any given painting hung in any gallery in the world is reminded that whatever it is they're going through, it's all been suffered before. There's also the argument that art exists to be beautiful, to inspire emotion and joy. Art exists because somebody is compelled to create it. Art exists to make money. I loved how much time and room the book laid aside to talk about the different routes and reasons that might one day see at artwork fetch a record price at auction. It shows that whatever art is to *whoever* wants to define it, it's never possible to truly explain what art is and why it matters. I like that.
I'm convinced this book has an unusually broad appeal and manages to make the unlikely jump from literary or contemporary fiction to casual readers, beach readers and romance readers alike. It's got beautiful prose, a satisfying if slightly inevitable romance plot, a devastating fa
mily secret that threatens the very foundations of the art world and a whistle stop tour of some of the lesser known masters of the 18th century art world. Personally I'd never heard of Watteau, but I found myself falling into a Wikipedia wormhole of 18th century art, seeing who painted what, who their contemporaries were, where these painting are now (hopefully a national collection) and the scandals and history of their creation.
Books like this make me wish I knew more about art, they make me wistful for travel to go and see some of these creations in the flesh (in the oil?) and it makes me really think about the legacy of the human race and our need to create. I love books about artists and the creative process. The Improbability of Love is a glorious read, an unlikely thriller (look, I'm a librarian, I find research and discovery thrilling) and a beautifully paced, intricately and artfully written novel about art, love and food. I will be recommending this an awful lot, and I genuinely fancy its chances for the Bailey's Prize.
My one singular gripe is that you would never get a librarian giving out patron data or info to anybody, no matter how eccentrically charming or ingeniously excused. Wouldn't happen.