BOOK REVIEWS: Hannah Rothschild and Anne Enright

Two beauties out this month!

Media of The Improbability of Love

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild; Bloomsbury; £14.99 hb, £12.99 eBook

Though the artist most vital to Hannah Rothschild’s entertaining novel is Antoine Watteau, the book itself is populated with enough characters to fill a Bosch canvas, and that includes its eponymous painting, The Improbability of Love, which steps forward to address the audience.

The first time this happened I said, “Oh no. No, no, no, no! This will not do.” But I was quickly seduced, and its wry asides are some of my favourite parts of a novel that’s chock full of pleasures.

This is a satirical novel, and an old-fashioned one. It conjured happy memories of some books of my youth, not the literary masterpieces, but the ones I read for pleasure, and the joys they delivered. I love gossip revealing how businesses really work behind the scenes, and mean no disrespect in saying that TIOL reminded me of the hitherto unexplored worlds I discovered via Arthur Hailey’s Hotel and Airport, or the sense that I’d learned something about films and fashion while reading Judith Krantz’s Scruples.

Rothschild plunges us into the art world, specifically the museums and high-end auction houses. She also celebrates food, and food as an art form. She is the ideal guide, a film director who has written scripts for Ridley Scott and Working Title, and published articles in Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and Vogue, among others. She will become Chair of the National Gallery Board this August (2015), and is a trustee of the Tate Gallery and Waddesdon Manor, and a Vice President of the Hay Literary Festival.

I interviewed her (http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/interview-hannah-rothschild-author-of-the-baroness-1-2260626)  around publication of The Baroness, recounting the story of her great-aunt Nica’s amazing life. As with that first book, she’s endowed this with her wealth of knowledge (and her knowledge of wealth), the storytelling skills she honed as a filmmaker, and the lovely sense of wonder and amusement that was evident during our conversation.

TIOL is the story of Annie McDee, who’s fled the countryside and the combined demise of her relationship and business, in order to reinvent herself in London. She is a foodie, but not a pretentious one, with a natural flair for things culinary. Though economically strapped, she splashes out on a compelling painting discovered in the back of a junk shop, and the rest of the novel finds her investigating its provenance while fighting to stay safe in an increasingly dangerous world filled with shifty Russian oligarchs and even shiftier art dealers. Even the government gets in on the act.

To complicated matters, Annie winds up babysitting her erratic alcohol-raddled mother, who comes to visit, refuses to leave, and creates chaos on a daily basis. And in another corner, a surprising reveal turns the narrative on its head.

Will Annie be able to discover the painting’s truth without losing her life? Can she make it as a private chef? Will romance bloom with Jesse, the besotted artist she’s holding at arm’s length? These are just a few of the questions that will keep you turning pages long past bedtime.

Fat and satisfying, this delightful novel should appeal to everyone who enjoys a well-told, pacey story with likable central characters and just enough acid to keep things from becoming cloying.

The Green Road by Anne Enright / Jonathan Cape / £17.99 hardback also available as an ebook

Two things before I begin:

1. I am a big fan of Anne Enright’s, so this was never going to be an entirely objective review. 2. I have interviewed her twice, once for The Scotsman and once at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. But we’re not friends, we don’t hang out, so I’m not violating my No Mates rule.

********

With one word Enright yanked me in as surely as if she’d hooked a crook around my neck. That word, the first, is “Later.”

What do you mean later? What happened? What is happening? How can you start in the middle?

But she can, she can. For anyone who needed convincing (many do not), The Green Road – especially its first half – is above all a showcase of Enright’s technical prowess. She is so assured that she can play, folding and unfolding time as if it was an origami swan, sliding from that “Later” back several hours and then further back before subtly returning to the point of origin without losing the sense, vital to all compelling books, of moving steadily forward. And not once are readers confused about what’s happening.

Before discussing the second chapter – which brought me out of my seat to applaud – perhaps we’d better have a précis. Like her Booker winner, The Gathering, The Green Road is a family saga. It concerns the geographically scattered children of Rosaleen Madigan, who come together when summoned for a reunion – and confrontation – during Christmas, 2005.

Rosaleen is a monster. A beauty, even in old age, she rules her roost by being impossible to please, which naturally makes everyone all the keener to attempt it. She retreats from life’s disappointments by taking to her bed and inventing ailments. Yet ensconced in her beautiful old house, in comfortable circumstances, what can she legitimately be disappointed about? That she married for love (and passion) but married “beneath her”? That her eldest son wants to be a priest (or so he thinks)? That her children’s children call her Gran, “a word which made her skin crawl”?

We all know Rosaleens. If she replaced self-absorption with self-awareness she’d remedy the situation in no time, but she has no genuine interest in being happy. Her sort sets the bar high in order to resent those who cannot clear it and, I suspect, as an excuse for her own inertia. She is manipulative, demanding — and magnetic. As twelve-year-old Hanna notes, “there was very little of herself that their mother held back. Her children were never what you might call ‘spared’.”

These children passionately love and despise Rosaleen, and yearn for her even while insisting they cannot bear another minute in her company. Emmet, contemplating her nature, concludes: “This is what pushed him, from one country to the next. This energy. A woman who did nothing and expected everything. She sat in this house, year after year, and she expected.”

She is the kind of woman whose offer to help always comes after the crisis has been resolved. She requires things of people and blames them. “She lived in a state of hope or regret, and she would not, could not, deal with the thing that was in front of her, whatever it was.”

In the first half, Enright gives a chapter apiece to the characters: youngest daughter Hana, Dan, the potential priest, Constance, the firstborn, and second son Emmet. Rosaleen has a chapter as well. With each leap in perspective we leap through time, but Enright enables us to land safely, and doesn’t clutter her story with explanations, leaving enough precisely observed clues to enable us to fill in the gaps for ourselves.

Because oh my god, what an observer she is!

Here she sums up the Celtic Tiger effect: “A pub that, in their youth, smelt of wet wool and old men was now a gallery of scents, like walking through the perfume department in the Duty Free.”

Of a therapist’s office: “The bin was made of pale wood, with a faint and open grain. It was always empty when he arrived. Expectant. The wastepaper basket was far too beautiful. The air inside it was the saddest air.”

Here is Constance on the pleasure of driving (and arriving): “There was such simplicity to it: crossing great distances to stop an inch away from the kerb, opening the door.”

And Rosaleen, who does not lack intelligence, thinks this of Dan: “For an utterly pretentious boy, he was very set against pretension. Much fuss to make things simple. That was his style.” It’s a glorious summation of an entire swathe of society, don’t you think?

There is much else to praise. Enright knows how and when to repeat a word – such as “later” – as a subtle reinforcement. She achieves the same thing by echoing behaviour, as well. So when Hanna spoons her mother near the end of the novel, comforting and warming the older woman after she’s been lost in the mountains, we’re reminded of Constance’s chapter, early in the book. Then, to comfort herself after a cancer scare, she crawls into bed to spoon her son. (Enright is brilliant at depicting parents’ visceral love for their children.)

For this reader, the most outstanding section of the book is Chapter Two, set in the gay community in New York, in 1991, when men were dropping like flies from AIDS. Dan has pitched up here, still linked to his university fiancee, but headed for a very different life.

It should not matter, but it does: I was there. I lived this. I lost friends, colleagues, acquaintances. Even though everything in The Green Road speaks to some portion of my experience, this chapter moved and astonished me. It’s narrated by an outside We, an unidentified We (though this voice returns, briefly, at the end). I marveled at the actual mechanism of the prose but my curiosity about the machinery didn’t diminish its emotional impact in the slightest.

If I had to boil my review down to two words I’d choose: READ THIS.

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