“Art only survives by striking a chord in someone’s heart and offering solace and reassurance.”
This is a brilliant, brilliant book about which I absolutely cannot say enough. But I’ll try.
Somehow, Hannah Rothschild manages to combine the worlds of fine art collections and auctions; thematic cooking and catering; the Holocaust; Russian exiles; alcoholism; and reluctant love. And, against all odds, it works—beautifully.
The frame of The Improbability of Love is this: Recently dumped Annie has relocated to London to escape and heal. She’s not doing so well with the latter. She has a single date with a guy she knows isn’t right for her, but she’s trying—too hard. It’s his birthday, so she invites him over for a home-cooked dinner and goes out in search of a gift. In a secondhand shop, a small painting catches her eye, so she spends too much and takes it home. And what do you know? Her date never shows up. So Annie finds herself stuck with the painting, on which she spent more than she had, and which, as it turns out, may or may not be a long-lost (fictional) masterpiece by 18th century French painter Antoine Watteau. But more on that later.
Annie works for a local filmmaker, but the work’s drying up. The man’s rich and powerful wife, Rebecca Winkleman, needs a chef for the family’s art dealing business, so she hires the girl upon her husband’s recommendation. Rebecca proves exceedingly difficult to work with and the mandatory menus are less than inspiring: simple fish and plain vegetables every night. Finally, Annie gets a chance to prepare a themed feast for a dinner party based around a Caravaggio painting. The menu is rather macabre, but it’s true to the painter’s lifetime and grotesque imagery. Based on the success of this soiree, Annie gets hired to cater parties for other art world movers and shakers.
Although Annie’s the main character here—we love her, we root for her, we suffer with her—the book takes the perspective of a plethora of other characters, among them:
- Jesse, art museum tour guide and amateur painter completely infatuated with Annie
- Rebecca Winkleman, daughter of the aforementioned father-daughter art dealers
- Memling Winkleman, the father half
- Barthomley Chesterfield Fitzroy St. George (Barty), style advisor to the rich and richer
- Melanie Appledore and Dolores Ryan, art collectors
- Vlad Antipovsky, exiled Russian oligarch
- Earl Beachendon, art appraiser on the outs with the Winkelmans
- Evie, Annie’s alcoholic mother
Despite this list, it’s really not hard to keep everyone straight and, except for Rebecca, you’ll like them all. Rothschild takes you through their days, their adventures and challenges, moving the narrative along while never losing focus of Annie. Interspersed throughout are chapters written from the first-person perspective of the painting itself: its history, its observations, its (yes!) feelings. One of these, Chapter 11, reads in its entirety:
I am still here.
And let’s not forget that I am the hero of this story.
And far more interesting than food.
And longer lasting than love.
I am still here.
Underlying the mystery of the painting—is it Watteau? Is it a copycat? And if it’s real, who is its rightful owner?—is Annie’s story. We see her first struggling with stinging rejection, sleepwalking through her days, and then growing: finding her culinary voice, believing in herself, and perhaps even giving love another chance—no matter how improbable its success. The Improbability of Love is a modern masterpiece. | Laura Hamlett