“The Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild

The Improbability of LoveMy mother once told me about a writing assignment she’d done as a schoolchild in Sweden. She had to tell the story of a 10 öre coin (probably the rough equivalent of a quarter at the time) from the coin’s point of view, talking about the people it had come into contact with and the things they had spent it on.

I am sure there have been whole novels written from the point of view of inanimate objects; The Improbability of Love is not entirely the first-person (first-item?) story of a painting, but a solid chunk of it is related by a lost masterpiece by Antoine Watteau. In case you’re wondering how an 18th-century French painting sounds, imagine an even-more-loquacious Miss Piggy, who, after all, also peppers her speech with French mots and imagines herself to be the most beautiful creature in the universe. “Let’s not forget that I am the hero of this story. Moi,” states the painting.

When the painting itself isn’t “talking,” we learn about all the people in its orbit, from high-end art dealers to monstrously rich collectors to Annie, the young woman who discovers the work in a junk shop and buys it on a whim. It turns out that the Watteau is being sought by one of London’s top dealers who will stop at nothing to get it; meanwhile, Annie, who is recovering from a broken heart, has no idea that the painting is potentially worth millions.

As is the case with most books told from multiple points of view, I found some of the characters and storylines to be much more interesting than others; the subplot about a Russian oligarch and the flamboyant “consultant” he hires to introduce him to London society was not nearly as compelling as the one about the super-powerful art dealer and his even-more-ruthless daughter trying to recover the painting and hide their dirty family secrets. As for the painting, well, like the coin in my mother’s story, it travels from hand to hand. It’s stolen, given away, nearly destroyed. It relates its history in detail, presenting its insights into human behavior along the way: “My little theory is that the heart of all human anxiety is the fear of loneliness. It starts with their expulsion from the womb and ends with a hole in the ground.” And: “I have noticed that the moment people become rich and achieve their earthly desires they enter a painful, spiritual vacuum.”

This book was recommended to me by a friend who read it during a visit to London earlier this summer, and I can imagine falling in love with the novel while traipsing around the city, visiting the parks and museums and galleries that are described within. Reading it during a typically chilly August in California did not give me the same frisson; I found it a bit slow-moving at times, though the final third really picks up steam as the stakes get higher and higher for all the parties involved. Perhaps the best thing about The Improbability of Love is that it made me really interested in learning more about Watteau and seeing some of his non-fictional paintings.

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