In another corner of London, in her one-bedroom Stockwell flat, the art historian Delores Ryan sat mired in despair. The only way she could imagine salvaging her reputation was to destroy the picture or herself, or both. It was universally known that she, one of the greatest experts in French eighteenth-century art, had held the work in her hands and dismissed it as a poor copy. With that one poor misattribution, one wrong-headed call, she had eviscerated a lifetime’s work, a reputation built on graft and scholarship. Though Delores had more than four triumphs under her belt, including the Stourhead Boucher, the Fonthill Fragonard and, most spectacularly of all, a Watteau that had hung mislabelled in the staff canteen of the Rijksmuseum, these were now forgotten. She would be forever known as the numbskull felled by The Improbability of Love.
commentary: What a very strange book this is: one that cannot make up its mind about its genre. There is some very broad satire of life, and of the art world, & it’s all somewhat Jilly Cooper-ish (by no means an insult). Most of the plot is remarkably silly – again, not an insult – but then every so often there are nuggets of interest and chunks of serious discussion about the art world, and at the centre of the book is a very serious moral matter. Most people in the book behave in ludicrous, unconvincing and illogical ways. Everybody is either horrible or feeble.
All that said, it’s a rollicking book, very readable, and you do want to know what happens. But I wish someone had persuaded the author to make it a tad more convincing. At the heart of the book is a woman called Rebecca, who uncovers a secret, and then has to take action. Her choices seem completely at odds with her reactions, and work only as a means of adding some jeopardy to another character: they are nonsensical.
The other key element is a lost masterpiece by the French artist Watteau – discovered in a junkshop, the efforts to authenticate it, the different motives of those looking for it, its history and provenance. And, the picture itself narrates part of the story.
But surprisingly that isn’t the most annoying thing about the book.
I’m sure Rothschild knows a lot about art, but she doesn’t know anything, for example, about the TV show Pointless which features, quite unnecessarily, but is given a doubly incorrect start time and a wholly meaningless question, one that doesn't make any sense at all:
Here are the names of eight footballers – match their British club to the national squad they represent.Nor does she know anything about the film Thelma and Louise, which is mentioned twice, and which she seems to think is about a mother and daughter.
There is a young woman who thinks that the best way to dress at a formal event, escorting a very rich American hedge fund manager, is as a cheerleader. I’m going to go out on a limb here: no such woman exists.
Key character Annie is listening to her messages:
The most surprising message was left by Agatha saying that Winkleman Fine Art was offering a ransom for a missing Watteau. Annie assumed Agatha must be mistaken.For this reason, Annie ignores the message. It’s this kind of thing that I find annoying – why bother with this? It is completely unconvincing – why would she assume a mistake and do nothing? It’s ridiculous, given there was no reason to mention the message in the first place.
At the end, as ever with books by friends-with-the-famous, Rothschild mentions all the lovely friends who read the book for her. As ever, I wondered why they didn’t point out the problems and mistakes.
Yes, it’s good fun, I enjoyed it, I kept reading. But the carelessness was insulting to readers.
The picture in the book is imaginary. The pictures above are by Watteau and from the Athenaeum website: The top one is called The Pleasures of Love. The figure of the Pierrot is apparently important in Watteau’s art, and is important on this blog – see this recent entry with links back to earlier posts – and is important in the lost picture in the book.