Review: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

I like books with paintings in. Every book I’ve written to date features at least one artist, and some of my favourite books centre around either particular paintings or the art world. There’s Jilly Cooper’s Pandora, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and now, Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love.

This week has been very painting-y.

I left university (having studied Illustration) entirely disillusioned and determined never to pick up a pencil again. I hated everything I had created, and had lost all sense of pride in my work. I want to say something extremely bitter here about the quality of teaching I received, but frankly, if you choose a university based only on how close it is to your home and nothing else, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

As the years have gone by I’ve dabbled here and there, but I had forgotten how it used to be. I had lost all the joy in creating.

Then, quite by chance, two events collided. I started to read The Improbability of Love, and I saw my old artwork for the first time in 10 years. I realised just how much I had lost. Looking through my portfolio from AS Level to the end of Uni, I saw how the pleasure had gone out of creating and how my education, rather than pulling me forward, had pushed me back to a level of such deep insecurity that I was unable to paint. I will say one thing for my art education – it’s taught me how to be extremely critical.

The Improbability of Love reminded me of a feeling I had completely forgotten – of being entirely captivated by a painting. Of having the process of creating something with your hands be the first and last thing in your mind. Of being all-consumed.

Why yes, I did get my copy from Waterstones, and yes, I did also get another book for half price. Why do you ask?

Why yes, I did get my copy from Waterstones, and yes, I did also get another book for half price. Why do you ask?

The story centres around one painting, The Improbability of Love, and chronicles the effect that art can have on the lives of those it touches. From the just-not-bothered to the obsessed, from those who want to bask in reflected glory to those who feel a deep attachment, Rothschild skilfully answers the question of what makes art, art, and what makes one picture more valuable than another.

Rothschild presents a broad cast of characters, from exiled Russian billionaires to struggling tour-guides, through the impoverished British aristocracy and dusty scholars. She opens up a world of sleaze, intrigue and high integrity. She contrasts the life of the artist, both idealised and not, and the gravitational pull that mysterious world has on those who surround themselves in it. There is a great deal of difference between Damien Hirst (who incidentally dropped out of one of the Higher Education courses I completed) and Watteau, painter of the story’s central masterpiece. There is a greater distance still between the work of those who create and those who deal in high art, and Rothschild illustrates this perfectly.

For me the real beauty of The Improbability of Love is that it makes me want to go to museums and galleries. It makes my hands stretch out to paint, it reminds me of the way I used to look at things with the idea of getting them down on paper. Coupled with my recently awakened memories of just how long I used to spend painting and drawing, and what pleasure there was to be found in it, the aching chasm where art used to be feels like it’s been reopened. My skill is rusty, but it’s still there.

In the spirit of this I’ve decided to draw a picture a day for all of May. The one caveat is that it has to be created using something indelible. Nothing makes you look at what you are drawing so closely as the knowledge that the line you are putting down is unalterable. If you’d like to check out my progress (and keep me accountable!) I’ve been posting the drawings here on Instagram.

Have you read The Improbability of LoveI’d love to hear what you thought!