Hannah Rothschild’s new novel, The Improbability of Love, has it all: suspense, intrigue, romance, and the unraveling of a Nazi-era art theft—with a twist that you will not see coming—all set in the lively, cutthroat world of the London art scene. As the young protagonist, Annie McDee, attempts to remake her life as a chef after a failed marriage, she purchases a dusty old painting from a junkshop. Unbeknownst to her, Annie has purchased a long-lost work of Antoine Watteau, who’s the founder of the Rococo movement. This is a painting that certain individuals will do almost anything to get. The players include the art dealer she cooks for, a member of the Russian mafia, an alienated art historian, and several wealthy art power buyers.
Through the help of Annie’s potential love interest, Jesse, and his art-restorer friend, Agatha, Annie slowly sheds her skepticism about the history and authenticity of the painting. But as rumors about this unearthed treasure begin to surface, Annie questions whom she can trust, and discovers how far people will go to possess a treasured object of beauty.
In a funny narrative twist, the painting’s provenance is revealed through the first-person voice of the painting itself. While I’m often skeptical of these types of cutesy tricks, Rothschild uses the painting’s voice in just the right measure and allows it to interject at just the right moments. The painting tells only half its story, though. Over the second half of the book, Rothschild explains that the painting went missing during World War II as part of the Nazi’s continent-wide art heist, a secret that puts Annie’s life and freedom in jeopardy and suggests that not everyone in the art world is who they claim to be.
While this book offers the suspense of a detective novel, Rothschild also adds enough philosophical questions about the price of art, love, and material possessions to give the story an unexpected depth. Readers who enjoy Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (2010), B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger (2013), the Gabriel Allon series, or any of the recent fictional, non-fictional, and filmic narratives on art thefts and the international questions of art restitutions and reparations will love this book.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf | 9781101874141 | November 3, 2015)