A Typical Bailey’s Read? ‘The Improbability of Love’ by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

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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.

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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.

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21 Responses to A Typical Bailey’s Read? ‘The Improbability of Love’ by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

  1. Hi, about to start it and the first chapter definitely seems to fit with your description, so am a “trifle” unnerved… will proceed but with a little caution, I fear! looking forward to following your ongoing Bailey’s takes x

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sounds – well, fluffy really. I think the cod-Poirot accent would be a bridge too far for me…

  3. Ste J says:

    It sounds worth a read in between more challenging books, it’s nice to read something light and well written which encourages an alcoholic drink, well you mentioned it, so I will go with it as gospel, so to speak.

  4. Sarah says:

    Blimey, that sounds dreadful! I sometimes wonder whether an ingenious premise for a novel can go a long way to explaining the hype over what turns out to be an underwhelming read. I can think of quite a few examples of novels that have been raved about in recent years, that all have very unusual plots but with writing that I actually found unbearable! Intolerant? Moi? 😉

    • I found it odd, because this book wasn’t even on my radar until it showed up on the very long long list, and even then it didn’t really stand out until the SL came through. I can’t blame the hype (because I’m not sure there was much) but I’m not going to lie – not really my kind of book at all.

  5. I was entertained by this book but no more than that. To see it on the longlist was surprising and I was amazed to see it on the shortlist. I have to wonder if the judges are putting celebrating the diversity of women’s writing above celebrating the quality.

    • My theory is that they want to branch out away from literary fiction and reward writing from other genres too, TIoL reminded me of the chick lit I used to wallow in (by Wendy Holden and the like) but it is very hard to compare it with last year’s glorious Bailey’s SL. Or the rest of this year’s list for that matter.

  6. I just got the book from the library, so we’ll see how my reading experience goes. My experience with the Bailey’s shortlist has been a bit conflicted as well. There were some I absolutely loved, and others that I felt only lukewarm about, wondering how they made it onto the shortlist. But I can deal with the not-so-great ones, because the Prize has also introduced me to some books that I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

    • Absolutely, and overall my whole Bailey’s experience this year (especially including the longlist) has been way more hit than miss. Which have been your favourites from this year’s SL?

  7. Ugh, this sounds awful – not my sort of thing at all. Thank goodness – my TBR is ridiculous 😉

    • I know I usually only write about the books that I really really enjoyed, but I’m now becoming acquainted with a new side of book blogging – the ‘I read it so you don’t have to’ school of reviewing!

  8. Elle says:

    Heh. I utterly loathed this book and wrote a whole column for Litro raging about why it was on the shortlist.

  9. Pingback: And the Prize for the Most Evil Woman in Fiction Goes To … | Shoshi's Book Blog

  10. Pingback: Bailey’s Short List! | Shoshi's Book Blog

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