It can’t be often that a chance trip – at the last minute to boot – to a junk shop to buy a gift for someone you really didn’t want to buy a gift for, becomes an experience that is both life-changing and a life-threatening. But that’s exactly what happens to Annie, a thirty-something, down-on-her-luck chef, who’s recently moved to London, after breaking up with a long-term boyfriend.
With little time, and even less money, Annie grabs an old painting from a display shelf, pays for it, and dashes away to a dinner date, only to be stood-up by the man she’s bought the artwork for in the first place. In the intervening period however, sinister forces have been at work. The old junk shop has been burned down, and the owner murdered.
For, unbeknownst to Annie, she has inadvertently acquired a painting worth millions of pounds, and before long will find herself the target of powerful figures in the London art world, who will stop at nothing to snatch it from her. And that, in a nut-shell, is the premise of The Improbability of Love (published by Knopf/Penguin Random House, 2015), by Hannah Rothschild, an English author, philanthropist and filmmaker. And best I leave my description there, because at a little over four hundred pages in length, it’d be difficult to be more succinct.
Almost the first quarter of the book is devoted to introducing the troupe of supporting characters. These include Annie’s alcoholic mother. A wishy-washy love interest. The daughter of a powerful London art collector, together with the aforementioned art collector, whose interest in getting his hands back on the painting is anything but financial. And curiously enough, the painting itself, the titular character if you like, named The Improbability of Love, which speaks to us at occasional intervals.
For its oversize ensemble of protagonists and antagonists though, keeping on top of who’s who, and what they’re doing is nary difficult at all. Described by Rothschild herself as comic fiction, The Improbability of Love was joint winner of the 2016 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and a nominee for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the same year.
In the words of our hapless chef Annie, The Improbability of Love could be described as a long cooking dish, fusing romance, heartbreak, intrigue, murder, family drama, war crimes, and cooking, all in a sticky marinade of satire. Choice ingredients surely, though it may be a meal that takes a little too long to serve for some.
Having also read her 2020 novel, House of Trelawney, which I will write about another time, I was intrigued by the amount of DNA it shared with The Improbability of Love, it was to me, a thought-provoking insight into the way some writer work.