Next on my TBR pile for the Baileys award was this, the debut novel from Hannah Rothschild. I’ll admit it: I picked it up next because of the eye-catching cover, the rave reviews and because it seemed like a fun read. So did it live up my expectations?
From the cover blurb you know to expect a love story. Annie McDee is searching for a birthday present for a man who she has just started seeing. She comes across an old painting in a junk shop and buys it for him, only for him to stand her up. It turns out that this painting is actually a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’. It has a dark past, and Annie’s investigations into the origin of the painting, helped by love interest Jesse, lead her to discover the more hazardous side of the art world. It’s described as a bit of a caper, a funny novel with an underlying message about the value we put on things.
The prologue brings us behind the scenes of the auction for the painting, introducing us to several characters who will bid on the masterpiece. The vibe is quite chick lit (which is fine) and a little cliched (not so much). We have the two Russian oligarchs who are enemies as each wants to outdo the other, the Middle Eastern Emir with his several wives and alleged support for al-Qaeda, the President of France with his mistress, and the Jewish philanthropist Mrs Appledore of New York. And I think that this was my main issue with this book – the stereotypes were so obvious that I wasn’t sure if the author was taking me seriously as a reader.
There were parts of the book that I loved. The novel is written mainly in third person, the only chapters in first being from the point of view of the painting. These chapters were of perfect length, not too long to make it annoying, and just long enough to get a sense of the history of the artwork. If fact, any of the sections that focused on art were brilliant and made me wish that more time had been spent on exploring the history of the artist, Watteau. Instead we whizzed all over London, and Europe, following lots of different characters, most of whom I didn’t care about. I wanted more time with Annie and Rebecca, her boss, whose stories fed the main plot. The love story was quite thin and I wouldn’t have missed that either (although if more time was spent with Annie and Jesse then perhaps I would have bought into it). The rest seemed like waffle that didn’t move the plot along and distracted me from caring about the more important characters. The end of the novel should have been a tense finale where the reader worries about what will happen, but instead I found that because I hadn’t become invested enough in any of the characters it lost impact.
If I had read this novel with no expectations at all then I may have had a slightly more positive view. The hype of being shortlisted for such a prestigious award, combined with the impressive CV outlined in the author bio led me to expect somthing really special. Don’t get me wrong – the book is ok. I can see the potential for a great book but it needed a good edit, with at least three characters cut since they had absolutely no bearing on the plot apart from being potential buyers at the auction. Sometimes less is more.