Monday, 9 May 2016

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild



published 2015



Improbability of Love



In another corner of London, in her one-bedroom Stockwell flat, the art historian Delores Ryan sat mired in despair. The only way she could imagine salvaging her reputation was to destroy the picture or herself, or both. It was universally known that she, one of the greatest experts in French eighteenth-century art, had held the work in her hands and dismissed it as a poor copy. With that one poor misattribution, one wrong-headed call, she had eviscerated a lifetime’s work, a reputation built on graft and scholarship. Though Delores had more Improbability of Love 2than four triumphs under her belt, including the Stourhead Boucher, the Fonthill Fragonard and, most spectacularly of all, a Watteau that had hung mislabelled in the staff canteen of the Rijksmuseum, these were now forgotten. She would be forever known as the numbskull felled by The Improbability of Love.

 
 
commentary: What a very strange book this is: one that cannot make up its mind about its genre. There is some very broad satire of life, and of the art world, & it’s all somewhat Jilly Cooper-ish (by no means an insult). Most of the plot is remarkably silly – again, not an insult – but then every so often there are nuggets of interest and chunks of serious discussion about the art world, and at the centre of the book is a very serious moral matter. Most people in the book behave in ludicrous, unconvincing and illogical ways. Everybody is either horrible or feeble.

All that said, it’s a rollicking book, very readable, and you do want to know what happens. But I wish someone had persuaded the author to make it a tad more convincing. At the heart of the book is a woman called Rebecca, who uncovers a secret, and then has to take action. Her choices seem completely at odds with her reactions, and work only as a means of adding some jeopardy to another character: they are nonsensical.

The other key element is a lost masterpiece by the French artist Watteau – discovered in a junkshop, the efforts to authenticate it, the different motives of those looking for it, its history and provenance. And, the picture itself narrates part of the story.

But surprisingly that isn’t the most annoying thing about the book.

I’m sure Rothschild knows a lot about art, but she doesn’t know anything, for example, about the TV show Pointless which features, quite unnecessarily, but is given a doubly incorrect start time and a wholly meaningless question, one that doesn't make any sense at all:
Here are the names of eight footballers – match their British club to the national squad they represent.
Nor does she know anything about the film Thelma and Louise, which is mentioned twice, and which she seems to think is about a mother and daughter.

There is a young woman who thinks that the best way to dress at a formal event, escorting a very rich American hedge fund manager, is as a cheerleader. I’m going to go out on a limb here: no such woman exists.

Key character Annie is listening to her messages:
The most surprising message was left by Agatha saying that Winkleman Fine Art was offering a ransom for a missing Watteau. Annie assumed Agatha must be mistaken.
For this reason, Annie ignores the message. It’s this kind of thing that I find annoying – why bother with this? It is completely unconvincing – why would she assume a mistake and do nothing? It’s ridiculous, given there was no reason to mention the message in the first place.

At the end, as ever with books by friends-with-the-famous, Rothschild mentions all the lovely friends who read the book for her. As ever, I wondered why they didn’t point out the problems and mistakes.

Yes, it’s good fun, I enjoyed it, I kept reading. But the carelessness was insulting to readers.

The picture in the book is imaginary. The pictures above are by Watteau and from the Athenaeum website: The top one is called The Pleasures of Love. The figure of the Pierrot is apparently important in Watteau’s art, and is important on this blog – see this recent entry with links back to earlier posts – and is important in the lost picture in the book.















12 comments:

  1. That sort of carelessness gets me every time, Moira. I know that no-one's perfect (least of all me!). But it takes very little time to check on details like the premise of a film. At any rate, I'm glad you were interested enough to carry on with the book, and I do find art really interesting. I have to admit, though, I don't think this is for me. Your post was, though! :-)

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    1. Thanks Margot! There are so many of us out there who are sufficiently engaged by books to notice those things - I'd have hoped authors and editors would try harder to please us.

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  2. Oh dear! I don't think that I'll be reading this. Too annoying, especially as I was an art historian in another life. An editor should have picked up some of this stuff. Thanks for reading it so that I don't have to, Moira.

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    1. I really have mixed feelings about this book - I know I am pedantic, but I do end up feeling insulted by books that get it wrong. I feel - if I can read carefully enough to notice, couldn't the professionals do the same...?

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  3. Not a chance I would read this. Partly just because I don't usually read this type of book anyway and it is too long. Partly because it sounds like it is trying to do too much. I usually just ignore factual errors like the Thelma and Louise thing, but you have to wonder why someone would mention that movie and not know more about it.

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    1. I don't think it would be your kind of thing Tracy, and it's not as if you are short of books to read...

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  4. I read this recently, full of high hopes after all the praise (and potential prizes) that have been heaped on it. But oh dear. Your review just about sums it up.

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    1. I know. I had high expectations, and I really wanted to like it more than I did...

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  5. The full title of the author is the Honourable Hannah Mary Rothschild, the daughter of the 4th Baron Rothschild. She's a trustee of both the National and Tate Galleries, and the Chairwoman of the board of the National.

    At the risk of being a reverse snob, this does sound like the publishers jumped at publishing something by her and weren't too bothered by it being pretty sloppy. The weird cultural references sound like something that I call the "Hey, Bloke!" effect. Many years back I used to read fan-fiction, and there was a DOCTOR WHO story by an American fan. The female companion at the end of the 80s was from Perivale, and was intended to be very 'street'. The author had very little idea of how she would speak, and the dialogue he wrote for her was a strange mix of Dick Van Dyke in MARY POPPINS and God-Knows-What. At one point she shouts at someone in the street with the cry of "Hey, Bloke!"

    It's the same sort of thing here. I doubt that Hannah Rothschild watches afternoon TV (nor do her friends who proof-read her book), but she's heard that POINTLESS is popular, so lets put it in the book. The same with THELMA AND LOUISE. What is irritating is that she couldn't be bothered to take the few minutes that it would need to check up references on the internet. But then, why should she? They're still going to publish the book.

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    1. Interestingly, one of the main characters - and NOT a very nice one - is the daughter of a very wealthy businessman and art collector. I suppose she wrote about what she knew, and I'm sure people in the art world want to read it. But I find all these aspects quite exclusionary for the normal reader... including her poking fun at popular culture that she hasn't bothered to try to understand, exactly as you say.

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  6. I read all the Bailey's shortlist for an event i was doing. I found the inclusion of this slightly perplexing but I did enjoy it. The painting as a character didn't do it for me.

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    1. I can see a lot of people liked this more than I did, which is fine, I'm in a minority. I was astonished that it won a prize for comedy writing though.

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