Following her biography of a jazz-loving great aunt (The Baroness, 2013), Rothschild shifts gears to imagine art-world shenanigans prompted by a long-lost Watteau painting in her first novel.
Readers know the painting’s creator and name from the prologue, which opens on the day of The Improbability of Love’s highly publicized auction. To show how it got there, Rothschild rolls back the action six months to introduce her engagingly disheveled heroine, Annie, a shellshocked refugee from a failed long-term relationship struggling to find her professional and emotional footing in London. Annie buys the painting on a whim in a junk shop, never dreaming that it’s anything important. Jesse, a young painter she meets in a museum, sees genius in this portrait of a man hopelessly gazing at an adored woman, but Annie’s more interested in making a good impression at her new gig as chef for icy Rebecca Winkleman and her father, Memling, proprietors of a powerful art dealership. Memling, an Auschwitz survivor with an uncanny knack for bringing high-quality paintings of vague provenance to market, is not what he seems and has a very pressing reason for retrieving the painting now in Annie’s possession. Rothschild deftly spins an elaborate web of intrigue involving a raft of sharply drawn secondary characters, including Annie’s alcoholic mother and an aging bon vivant who helps rich people spend their money. But the story’s emotional center is Annie’s quest for recognition—many scrumptious descriptions of meal preparations reveal her as a brilliant cook—and battle-scarred reluctance to realize that sweet Jesse is the man for her. Even the painting gets a few monologues (amusing, though adding little of substance) as the action moves through multiple, often nail-biting plot twists—yes, there are a few convenient coincidences, put across by the fast pace and vivid prose—toward a slightly hasty but nonetheless satisfying resolution.
Smart, well-written, and thoroughly gripping.