Art's pull on life

Art's pull on life

The Improbability of Love
Hannah Rothschild
2015, pp 416, Rs 552

The Improbability of Love is the name of both Hannah Rothschild’s debut novel and the masterpiece at its heart. The painting in question is fictional; the painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, is not. Watteau is credited with the creation of the 18th-century fête galante painting style, defined by costumed figures flirting and cavorting in parklands. Rothschild’s book is a frolicsome art-world caper whose extravagant personalities tear boisterously through manicured worlds.

The plot. Lord, where to begin. Annie McDee, a struggling chef, is 31 and reeling from a catastrophic breakup. She buys a painting at a junk shop for a fellow she met at a speed-dating wingding; he stands her up for dinner. Annie now looks at this painting as a jeering reminder of her impetuosity, but Evie, Annie’s mother and unwanted houseguest, sees something of value in it, stuffs it into a plastic bag and forces her daughter into an excursion to the Wallace Collection.

There, as her mother brazenly compares and contrasts the painting to rococo masterpieces on the walls, Annie meets an adorable guide and struggling artist, Jesse. He offers to help determine the painter and provenance of Annie’s mysterious purchase — as a pretext for courtship, of course.

Poor lambs. They have no idea what lies ahead. This lost work is in fact a foundational piece in Watteau’s oeuvre, one that’s had pride of place in almost every palace listed in Baedeker’s and is currently of keen interest to Winkleman Fine Art Ltd., where Annie works as a lowly chef.

The reader suddenly enters London’s outrageous art scene, whose gallery of divas and miscreants includes a Russian billionaire thug named Vlad; an American dowager socialite named Melanie Appledore; and most deliciously, a 69-year-old gay Svengali and fixer named Barthomley Chesterfield Fitzroy St George, né Reg Dunn, who never met a wig or paparazzo he didn’t like.

You grow so accustomed to these ridiculous characters that it doesn’t seem at all strange when a luckless earl throws himself at the mercy of a contemporary artist named Blob. It helps that Rothschild, a descendant of the wealthy banking family, knows a great deal about art. Her erudition — about restoration, authentication, art history in general — comes through on page after page, and it’s one of the incidental pleasures of reading the book, as are her mouthwatering descriptions of the feasts Annie makes.

Some of the best disquisitions about art come from the painting itself, which, yes, is a character, and a refined one at that. “His beauties,” says the painting of its master, Watteau, “had a sort of désinvolture (get a dictionary).”

The Watteau’s hauteur is justified. It possesses magical, almost aphrodisiacal, powers. Every man who has ever seen this masterwork has felt instantly compelled to give it to his beloved. “I was painted to celebrate the wild cascades of love,” explains the painting, “the rollicking, bucking, breaking and transformative passion that inevitably gave way to miserable, constricting, overbearing disappointment.”

I circled that sentence as I was reading, thinking it a nice distillation of both love’s folly and the mood of the fantastical Watteau. Unfortunately, Rothschild must have liked that sentence, too, because it shows up again, almost word for word, 50 pages later.

There’s not much more I can say about the intrigue of The Improbability of Love without being a rotten spoiler. What I can say is that Rothschild makes an impassioned case for art — as a companion to the lonely, as a restorative to those in pain — and leaves us with the impression that it speaks with equal power to angels and demons.

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