Books are such subjective things. I was alarmed yesterday by a dear friend telling me she’d been reading my blog archives (thus causing a gratifying spike in readership figures) and decided to have a go at The Goldfinch (one of my top books in the last 5 years to which I gave this slathering, worshipful review.)
“No!” I thought immediately. “Don’t touch it! What are you, mad?!”
The fact is, all books don’t suit all people. And a nine-hundred page rolling, swaying voyage across America and Europe through childhood, adolescence, antiques, drugs, crime, love, loss, and art may simply not be the ticket for an analytically minded bicyclist sailor who has to squeeze in a few pages a day around her high powered job. (Love you E.) Just because I like epics does not mean they are necessarily the choice for you.
But, you’re in luck. Because I’ve got one for you today that’s for pretty much everyone. Particularly if you’re female; if you are a male non-fiction reader who disdains the touch of a novel and likes pure fact and pure crime I wouldn’t have initially thought it was for you. But my Dad LOVED it – and he’s a Cornwell / Grisham / Sharpe kind of guy. So put on the teapot! It’s coming for YOU.
The Improbability of Love tells the story of a magnificent painting with a grandiose, scurrilous and wildly implausible back story, having been owned by half the most famous characters in European history and even having artistically given birth to the Rococo movement. The painting is found, by chance, in a junk shop by the sympathetic protagonist Annie, a down-on-her-luck wannabe chef reeling from the end of a long relationship. Pretty soon, though, the whole world of high-art is wheeling about her; a magnificent cast of the wealthy circling around London’s Mayfair. Rothschild makes fun of this world with ease, but without bitterness: it’s a motley crew each given affection and judgement in turn with the lightest touch.
Interestingly, the book isn’t a celebration of art so much as creativity; the brightest, shiniest writing comes in the passages when Rothschild is describing Annie’s wonderful cooking. It’s hard to write about food, but here it’s done brilliantly: not only are luscious spreads almost touchable, but the cooking process is brought to fizzing life: an engaging, sensorial, imaginative process where you’re brought along the tide of Annie’s enjoyment.
I did have a bugbear with this book though: the hardcover edition, which I read, has a cover so fancy that you assume this is Literature with a capital L. And, it ain’t, my dears. It is a pot boiler. It is a page turner. This is not high philosophy. It joyfully raids the cupboard of cliche – from a Russian billionaire villains banished from the motherland, to a flamboyant arriviste homosexual beloved by the nouveau riche, to the mouldering aristocracy, to a wild eccentric alcoholic mother, to a elbow-patched earnest artist who falls instantly in love… and that’s only half of the stock-characters. So I started it very po-faced at its inconsistency with its high-falutin cover and inclined to judge it more harshly as a result. But then I saw the paperback cover (up top) which embraces its populist nature – and began to appreciate it for what it is: an enjoyable, fun read with enough history, art and food to make it satisfying.
The more I read in general, the more I appreciate the skill in spinning a yarn, keeping the reader’s attention, managing a flow. It is in some ways, surely, as great a skill as painstakingly crafted prose. Sure, the best books have both. But if you have to choose only one, you’ll go for the yarn. And why not start with this one?