“For one night, forget friendship and morals; concentrate only on winning.”
Hanna Rothschild has created a comedic, satirical romp about love, art, and greed. Annie McDee is a thirty-one year old aspiring chef struggling to create a life for herself in modern London. In a constant dance between romantic optimism and self-protective cynicism, Annie is working through the real hurts of the end of a long-term relationship and the lifelong codependence of her alcoholic mother. Alone in the big city, she is haunted;
“loneliness stalks my every move and a feeling of desolation presses down on my heart[.] My grief is not like a cloud or an atmosphere: it has an actual physical weight and a presence. Sometimes it assumes the shape of a heavy blanket, or tiny weights suspended from every finger, lobe and eyelash; or it can be a boulder or a suitcase needing to be pushed or dragged.”
When Annie stumbles upon an oil painting in a junk shop, her life begins to take improbable twists and turns and she becomes increasingly tied to a community she hardly new existed.
Rothschild employs biting satire and charming wit to expose the world of art, creating caricatures of wide-eyed artists, ruthless dealers, greedy collectors and hapless historians. The omniscient narrator peers into the lives of these characters, illuminating their connections to Annie’s painting and their stake as some seek to determine it’s identity and provenance while others try to obtain it at any cost.
Rothschild, who is on the boards of the Tate Modern and the National Gallery in London, is intimately familiar with the art world, and her experience shows in the easy-handed manner in which she casts art as both end and means throughout the novel.
“Art only survives by striking a chord in someone’s heart and offering solace and reassurance. A great picture is a distillation of emotion, offering an empathetic hand across time and circumstance. A wonderful composition inspires sympathy and harmony. No wonder mortals fight to possess us.“
The bird’s eye view Rothschild provides of the complicated mechanics and nonsensical hierarchy, rife with middlemen, of the modern art world is utterly fascinating. The use of this milieu as a craven idol of materialism and greed is clever and disheartening.
“Art follows power. Just as soldiers hang medals from their uniforms, the rich hang paintings on their walls.”
The sleuthing to uncover the painting’s history is delicious and exciting, sparking the desire for academic investigation in nerds the world over, not unlike the effects of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.
“[I]gnorance is a curse lying in wait for the younger generation, for those who forgot to ask.”
And then there are the pithy barbs in which Rothschild cleverly offers critiques of humanity.
“Human beings are a capricious lot, slaves to fancy and fashion. They are destined to be perpetual amateurs – they don’t live long enough to be anything more. What can one do in a mere seventy or eighty years? During the first part of their lives, it’s all haste and fornication. Thenceforward most of their efforts go into staying alive.”
“[L]ove obliterates common sense; look back through history and consider the downright foolishness and acts of moral depravity committed in love’s name.”
“As we all know, a fierce female mind is a passion-killer. Men prefer the breast to the brain.”
In Rothschild’s capable hands, the reader is treated to a story full of whimsical plot and unforgettable (and sometimes unforgivable) characters. Art is held up as both the pinnacle of what humans can create and an example of how we can pollute even our finest accomplishments.