I wrote last year about my sometimes ambivalent attitude towards the Bailey’s prize. In general, I love literary prizes, for a start, they bring books to the forefront of readers’ attention in a busy and overcrowded marketplace. For myself, I like the idea of having a personal team of judges (that’s how I see it anyway) going through a massive collection of books to enable me to cherry-pick from the very best. I know that some might get missed out along the way, but with so many books published all the time, I need some way of selecting and shortlists are a good starting place. As for the Bailey’s prize specifically, my reading does show a bias towards female authors, and I’m aware that they can be terribly underrepresented in other prize lists so that’s all good. My only quibble comes with the sponsorship. You see I don’t like Bailey’s, I find it too sweet for my taste and it always makes me think the books might be a bit sickly and ‘girly,’ the kind of novels you would dip into before going out for a night on the town, rather than literary fiction which requires a whole night in to savour and enjoy. I know this is superficial, but I love words and take names seriously, it’s why I read literary fiction and why I still follow the prize with such interest.
Rather unusually, ‘The Improbability of Love’ feels like exactly the kind of book you would read with a Bailey’s to hand. It’s sweet, it’s easy and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unlike, for example, Tibor Fischer’s ‘The Collector Collector’ in which an ancient piece of art manages to inherit and spread all the decadence of its wealthy amoral owners, the painting that dominates Rothschild’s narrative is coy and self-conscious. While the novel contains hints at serious history, politics and high finance, the tone remains playful, take this typical description of the painting’s peregrinations: ‘One was pleased to finally make it into Versailles. Naturallement, with my powers of inspiration, it only took three weeks until Mademoiselle Poisson was proclaimed the official mistress (which, lucky her, was followed by ennoblement, estates, an apartment directly below His Majesty); the transformation of a Miss Fish to Madame de Pompadour; it was all down to moi.’ As for why a painting that has travelled Europe and spent the past decades in a junk shop would talk in affected English with Poirot-style asides, well I suppose once a painting can narrate its own story you can’t really complain about the realism of the accent.
The whole story is equally frothy. There is a host of eccentric and amusing millionaires who want to buy the painting and some unscrupulous art dealers who want to hide it. The heroine, a beautiful, plucky amateur chef is trying (successfully) to piece her life together after a recent divorce. She will eventually find her niche creating sumptuous historical banquets for the super-rich. That’s about as gritty as the novel gets, because the rest of the characters are the super-rich themselves. Some are evil, some are charming, the difference is usually shown in how they respond to our heroine, because surely only a wicked witch could fail to adore Annie: ‘large green almond-shaped eyes, flawlessly arched eyebrows, white teeth slightly chipped in the middle to form a baby triangle. Her mouth was slightly too wide but a good deep plum-red. Her skin was so pale that it glowed like a soft marble. A fraction too long in the face, which gave her a rather charming, serious, pensive look…’
Overall, the novel is a fanciful piece of escapism, about as realistic as the paining it reveres. That’s not to say it’s lacking in charm, just that the charm might not be of the order usually found in shortlists for literary fiction. As weather improves, it will be a fun beach read for the summer months, if you’re heavily involved in the contemporary art world, you may love it for its satirical take on the commercialisation of culture. Finally, if you found it more thought-provoking than I did, please get in touch, I don’t want to be a hypocrite and I’d hate for my own literary snobbery to prevent others from enjoying one of the Guardian’s ‘Best Books of 2015.‘
I received my copy of ‘The Improbability of Love’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.