Monday, December 12, 2016

What did the book club think of Hannah Rothschild's "The Improbability of Love?"

Annie McDee works as a chef for a film director in London. Her life ain't much. Her mother is a drunken failure, and her love life is pretty much nil. And London? Well, you known how unlivable (or rather, unliveable, as we're talking UK preferences) it's become for the non-superrich.

Her long-term boyfriend didn't want kids, but when he left her, had one with another date. But her newest prospect seems promising. She offers to cook him dinner, and in a rash decision, decides to buy him a small painting from a thrift store. He doesn't show up. 

It turns out, however, that this oddly attractive painting is a lost masterpiece of Antoine Watteau, titled The Improbability of Love, just like the title. And there are a whole mess of people who want it. This forms the plot of Hannah Rothschild's first novel, which is equal parts romantic comedy, thriller, satire, and historical novel, with lots of interesting details about art restoration and fraud detection.

I wanted something a little lighter, more of a crowd pleaser, for our In Store Lit Group for December, and boy did I get it. It was a big success, but I shouldn't have worried. This was Boswellian Jane pick for fall 2015 in hardcover, and was also the sleeper pick from our sales rep Jason.

The first 20 pages might be the weakest, with the prologue documenting the high rollers at an upcoming auction. For one thing, this highlights that there is a lot of typecasting in the story, and downside of typecasting is stereotyping. In a way, it does a good setup. But did we need it? I would be fascinated to see how readers reacted when this section was moved to its proper place in the story's chronology. Another downside is that it reveals a little too much too quickly about the paintings provenance. It's almost impossible not to guess that the storied painting in question is the one that Ms. McDee picked up. Suzi Feay in The Guardian talks more about the prologue. 

The bidders, so well highlighted in the prologue, mostly have bit parts in the body of the novel, with the exception of Vladimir Antipovsky, a Russian emigre whose mission, once evicted from the homeland, is to sent back prophets to the leader, with fatal consequences for not following orders. And in this internet world we live in, there is no escape. So like many a rich person looking for riches, he dabbles in art. 

His guide to this world is Barthomley Chesterfield Fitzroy St. George, a sixty-something elfin party boy (real name: Reg Lucas) who teaches the wealthy how to enjoy themselves, and dresses up like circa seventies Elton John (another Reg, by the way). Barty's bestie is Delores Ryan, the art historian who is one of two of the foremost experts on Watteau, the other being the very reclusive Trichcombe Abufel.

There's also Earl Beachendon, the auctioneer at Monochorum & Sons, who may have a title but doesn't have enough money to keep his daughters in the life that they deserve. There's Melanie Appledore, who with her husband (both Polish emigres who Anglified their names and histories), created a huge fortune and is now setting up a museum, as is the Emir of Alwabbi and his wife the Sheikha. But most importantly there is Winkleman and Son, the art house that has conered the market in almost every aspect of high-end art, run by the aging patriarch Memling, a Holocaust survivor, and his daughter Rebecca. 

And Rebecca is married to Carlo Spinetti, the director that Annie works for. Much of her job is making boiled fish and vegetables (the more boring the better) for the Winkleman family, or it is now, since their last chef left. Annie's attempt to figure out the painting not only puts her in the orbit of Jesse, a nice art historian who has the hots for her, but also of the Winklemans. And to the Winklemans, Memling in particular, this is not just any painting.

Did I mention that the painting tells some of the story? I probably should. If you don't like that sort of thing, you should stop reading now. I would say half our book club (about 16 of us total) loved it, a quarter disliked it, and the rest didn't are either way. 

As I mentioned, this story is a little bit of everything. The art details and history are fascinating. In a way, it reminded me of the B.A. Shapiro novels, with the art details taken up a notch, being that Rothschild is a trustee of the Tate and Chair of the Trustees of London's National Gallery. And it's also funnier.

The book had some high profile reviews, like Jennifer Senior's in The New York Times (which was very positive but noted some editing glitches) and a write up in Entertainment Weekly. But as you search closer, you might notice that the book did not get widespread reviews. It turns out that despite being shortlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize (yes, the old Orange Prize), it was kind of a midlist book. 

Do I love a novel where place has a central role? I do! London is such an important part of Rothschild's novel. As James McAuley in The New Republic wrote: The Improbability of Love is set in the same city we see in China Mieville's London's Overthrow and John Lanchester's Capital, a global cosmopolis whose imperial shell is awash with cash but devoid of soul." I read a lot of reviews of this novel but I think this essay really gets it. He also discusses the much-maligned style of the Fête Galante and why after reading this book, you will definitely want to check out some paintings.

We Americans don't love satire, but there's no getting around it, this novel is a skewering of the high-end art world. One of my favorite bits (and there are so many, that I'm not giving much away) is when the Watteau expert that everyone uses spots the painting in question, she has no inkling its the real thing and calls it out as a cheap copy. The real expert? He's been exiled for raising questions about several pieces. When there's this much money to be made, there's going to be some dirty dealing. Let's just say that this has the highest body count of a Jane pick in a long time.

And the romantic comedy. Yes, there's a Bridget Jonesiness to the Annie McDee character, but why they took this aspect of the plot and turned it into the paperback jacket is beyond me. I've been tracking sales on Above the Treeline and we're currently the #1 independent bookstore in the United States #1 store for sales, and have been for the past month. It's my feeling that this cover is really impeding sales. You have to sell it inspite of the the cover, and folks (let's be frank - gals) who buy this book for the cover are going to be disappointed. They'll find 75 satisfying pages in a 500 page book. As Liz Lemon says, 'blurg!" And yes, Annie reminds me of Liz Lemon and The Improbality of Love is a UK-set, art-themed 30 Rock. There, I said it. 

But the jacket issue has another problem. That woman on the cover is not Annie McDee. She'd be wearing combat boots or Doc Martens, not prim ballet flats. This model is out of an Anita Brookner novel. And did I mention my very favorite UK sales pitch for this book, that it's Anita Brookner meets Judith Krantz? I should also note that the painting in question is 18 x 24, not the supersized canvas that this model is holding.

I've included some of the jacket concepts used in other countries. The British hardcover, as well as the Italian (and Portuguese) ebooks mimicked the look of The Rosie Project, another quirky romantic comedy. Germans went with type, the French with a painting motif (though not one that was in the style of the book) and the UK paperback was their equivalent to our chick lit cover. We apparently love women with their heads cut off (or at least one major retailer does). The Brits like silhouettes. Every art director saw Annie as a little frillier than I did. I think my favorite cover is the Italian ebook. I like the London icons and at least Annie is wearing pants and bicycling. Note that the bicycling silhouette is also used in the UK hardcover. 

Despite the general reaction to romantic comedies as book club material, our group fell for Annie hook, line, and sinker. We argued over her fate, with my contention being the novel is a celebration of process over product. Time and again, the happiest people are the doers who do for its own sake. And Annie turns out to be an artist in her own right, creating the most amazing dinner parties given half a chance. I actually think The Improbability of Love would appeal to folks who like foodie lit as much as those who like art lit. 

So you've guessed that I really had a great time with The Improbability of Love. And here's why I think the book is elevated from a Holocaust-art-world-caper-satire-thriller-romance to something more? It's all in the work of Antoine Watteau, specifically Fête Galante category of painting. You eventually piece together, if you've done your research (and now you have), that the structure and tone of the book is a literary representation of the Fête Galante

The group consensus was postive. Lots to talk about for a book club and lots of historical background. Are there issues? Yes there are. A number of us thought the ending was rather abrupt, perhaps partly a result of that shuffled prologue. There's at least one mysterious death that is never explained. Some would argue about the lack of diversity among the non-typecast characters. Others thought it was too fluffy, but I prefer the term frothy. And there are plenty who would similarly dismiss Antoine Watteau's paintings. But what's wrong with disagreement?  It wouldn't be a good book club discussion without a little arguing.

Upcoming discussions!

Monday, January 2, 7 pm: Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen. Regular time, no author. McKenzie will be at Boswell on Monday, January 23, 7 pm.

Monday, Febraury 6, 6 pm: Brit Bennett's The Mothers. Earlier time, with a visit from the author for us to ask spoiler questions (at around 6:40 pm). Traditional author event starts at 7 pm.

Monday, March 6, 7 pm: Paul Beaty's The Sellout. No author, but with two big awards and counting, we all have to read it. Plus our group apparently doesn't mind a little satire.

No comments: