The Improbability of Love: A Novel

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9781101872574: The Improbability of Love: A Novel

Finalist for the Baileys Women's Prize

Annie McDee, thirty-one, lives in a shabby London flat, works as a chef, and is struggling to get by. Reeling from a sudden breakup, she’s taken on an unsuitable new lover and finds herself rummaging through a secondhand shop to buy him a birthday gift. A dusty, anonymous old painting catches her eye. After spending her meager savings on the artwork, Annie prepares an exquisite birthday dinner for two—only to be stood up. 

The painting becomes hers, and Annie begins to suspect that it may be more valuable than she’d thought. Soon she finds herself pursued by parties who would do anything to possess her picture: an exiled Russian oligarch, an avaricious sheikha, an unscrupulous art dealer. In her search for the painting’s identity, Annie will unwittingly discover some of the darkest secrets of European history—and the possibility of falling in love again. 

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About the Author:

Hannah Rothschild is the author of The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild. She is also a film director whose documentaries have appeared at such festivals as Telluride and Tribeca. She has written for British Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Independent, and The Spectator, and is vice president of the Hay Literary Festival, a trustee of the Tate Gallery, and the first woman chair of the National Gallery in London.

www.hannahrothschild.com

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE AUCTION (3 JULY) 


 
It was going to be the sale of the century.
 
From first light a crowd had started gathering and by the late afternoon it stretched from the monumental grey portico of the auc­tion house, Monachorum & Sons (est. 1756), across the wide pavement and out into Houghton Street. At noon, metal barriers were erected to keep a central walkway clear and at 4 p.m. two uniformed Monachorum doormen rolled out a thick red carpet from the fluted Doric columns all the way to the edge of the pavement. The sun beat down on the crowd, and the auction house, as a gesture of good will, handed out free bot­tles of water and ice-lollies. As Big Ben struck six mournful chimes, the police diverted normal traffic and sent two mounted officers and eight on foot to patrol the street. The paparazzi, carrying step ladders, laptops and assorted lenses, were corralled into a small pen to one side, where they peered longingly through the door at three television crews and various accredited journalists who had managed to secure passes to cover the event from inside.
 
“What’s going on?” a passer-by asked a member of the crowd.
 
“They’re selling that picture, you know, the one on the news,” explained Felicia Speers, who had been there since breakfast. “The Impos­sibility of Love.”
 
The Improbability of Love,” corrected her friend Dawn Morelos. “Improbability,” she repeated, rolling the syllables slowly over her tongue.
 
“Whatever. Everyone knows what I’m talking about,” said Felicia, laughing.
 
“Are they expecting trouble?” asked the passer-by, looking from the police horses to the auction house’s burly security guards.
 
“Not trouble—just everyone who’s anyone,” said Dawn, holding up her smartphone and an autograph book that had the words “Rock and Royalty” embossed in gold lettering across its front.
 
“All this hullaballoo for a picture?” asked the passer-by.
 
“It’s not just any old artwork, is it?” said Felicia. “You must have read about it?”

At the top of the broad steps of Monachorum four young women in black dresses and high-heeled shoes stood holding iPads waiting to check off names. This was an invitation-only event. From certain vantage points, the crowd outside could just glimpse the magnificent interiors. Formerly the London seat of the Dukes of Dartmouth, Monachorum’s building was one of Europe’s grandest surviving Palladian palaces. Its hallway was large enough to park two double-decker buses side by side. The plaster ceiling, a riot of putti and pulchritudinous mermaids, was painted in pinks and golds. An enormous staircase, wide enough for eight horsemen to ride abreast, took the visitor upstairs to the grand salesroom, an atrium, its walls lined with white and green marble and top lit by three rotunda. It was, in many ways, quite unsuitable for hanging and displaying works of art; it did, nevertheless, create a perfect storm of awe and desire.

In a side room, two dozen impeccably turned-out young men and women were being given their final instructions. Luckily, on this hottest of nights, the air-conditioning kept the room a steady eighteen degrees. The chief auctioneer and mastermind of the sale, Earl Beachendon, dressed for the evening in black tie, stood before them. He spoke firmly and quietly in a voice honed by eight generations of aristocratic fine liv­ing and assumed superiority. Beachendon had been educated at Eton and Oxford but, owing to his father’s penchant for the roulette table, the eighth Earl was the first member of his illustrious family to have sought regular employment.
 
Earl Beachendon appraised his team. For the past four weeks they had rehearsed, anticipating all eventualities from a broken heel to an attempted assassination. With the world’s media in attendance and many of the auction house’s most important clients gathered in one place, it was essential that events were managed with the precision of a finely tuned Swiss clock. This evening was a game changer in the history of the art market: everyone expected the world record for a single painting to be smashed.
 
“The attention of the world’s media is on us,” Beachendon told his rapt audience. “Hundreds of thousands of pairs of eyes will be watching. One small mistake will turn triumph into disaster. This is not just about Monachorum, our bonuses or the sale of one painting. This event will reflect on an industry worth over $100 billion annually and our handling of this evening will reverberate across time and continents. I don’t need to remind you that this is an international arena. It’s time that our contribu­tion to the wealth and health of nations is recognised.”
 
“No pressure, my Lord,” someone quipped.
 
Earl Beachendon ignored his minion. “According to our extensive research, your respective charges will be the highest bidders—it is up to each of you to nurture, cajole and encourage them to go that little bit further. Convince them that greatness lies in acquisition; excite their curiosity and competitive urges. Use every weapon in your arsenal. Bathe them in a sea of perfectly judged unctuousness. Remind each of them how unique, how indispensable, how talented, how rich they are and, most importantly, that it is only here at this house that their brilliant eye and exquisite taste are appreciated and understood. For one night, forget friendship and morals: concentrate only on winning.”
 
Beachendon looked along the line of faces, all flushed with excitement.
 
“You are each to make your assigned guests feel special. Special with a capital ‘S.’ Even if they don’t succeed in buying what they are after, I want these Ultra-High-Net-Worthers to leave this evening longing to come back, desperate to win the next round. No one must feel like a loser or an also-ran; everyone must feel that some tiny thing conspired against them but next time they will triumph.”
 
Beachendon walked up the line of employees looking from one to another. For them the evening was an exciting experience with a potential bonus; for him it boiled down to penury and pride.
 
“Now remember, particularly the ladies, you are expected to serve and delight. I leave the interpretation of ‘serve and delight’ entirely up to each of you, but discretion is the name of the game.” Nervous laughter rippled through the ranks.
 
“As I read out the names of the guests I would like their minders to step forward. You should all be familiar with your charge’s appearance, likes, dislikes and peccadillos.” Beachendon paused before offering his well-practised, deliberately politically incorrect joke: “No offering alco­hol to Muslims or ham sandwiches to Jews.”
 
His audience laughed obediently.
 
“Who is looking after Vlad Antipovsky and Dmitri Voldakov?”
 
Two young women, one in tight-fitting black taffeta, the other in a backless green silk dress, raised their hands.
 
“Venetia and Flora, remember, given the chance, these two men will rip each other’s throats out. We have managed to keep their personal secu­rity to a minimum and have asked them to leave their firearms at home: prevention is our best policy. Keep them apart. Understood?”
 
Venetia and Flora nodded.
 
Consulting his list, Beachendon read out the next name. “Their Royal Highnesses, the Emir and Sheikha of Alwabbi.”
 
Tabitha Rowley-Hutchinson, the most senior member of guest rela­tions, was encased in royal-blue satin; only her long neck and slender wrists were visible.
 
“Tabitha—what subjects will you avoid at all costs?”
 
“I will not mention Alwabbi’s supposed support for al-Qaeda, the Emir’s other wives or the country’s human rights record.”
 
“Li Han Ta. Are you fully briefed on Mr. Lee Lan Fok?”
 
Li Han Ta nodded gravely.
 
“Remember: the Chinese may not triumph today, but they are the future.” Looking around the room he saw that every single person was in agreement.
 
“Who is in charge of His Excellency the President of France?”

Marie de Nancy was wearing a blue silk tuxedo and matching trousers.
 
“I will ask him about cheese, his First Lady and French painting, but I won’t mention another British victory in the Tour de France, his mistress or his popularity ratings,” she said.
 
Beachendon nodded. “Who is managing the Right Honourable Barn­aby Damson, Minister of Culture?”
 
A young man hopped forward. He was wearing a pink velvet suit and his hair was coiffed in a style once known as a duck’s arse.
 
Beachendon groaned. “More subtlety, please—the minister might be of that ‘persuasion,’ but he doesn’t like to be reminded in public.”
 
“I thought I might talk about the ballet—he loves the ballet.”
 
“Stick to football and cinema,” Beachendon instructed.
 
“Who is looking after Mr. M. Power Dub-Box?”
 
In recent months, the world’s most successful rapper had surprised the art world by buying several iconic works of art. Standing at nearly seven foot tall, weighing 250 lbs. and flanked by an entourage of black-suited minders and nearly naked women, Mr. M. Power Dub-Box was unmissable and, apparently, unbiddable. His behaviour, fuelled by vari­ous substances and pumped up by infamy, frequently led to arrests but, as yet, no convictions. Two large men in black tie stepped forward. Vassily was a former Russian middleweight boxing champion and Elmore was an ex-Harvard sports scholar.

Looking at the towering men, Beachendon offered a silent thank you to Human Resources for hiring these colossi in a world populated by fine-boned aesthetes.
 
“Moving on. Who is minding Stevie Brent?” Beachendon asked.
 
Dotty Fairclough-Hawes was dressed as an American cheerleader in a tiny striped skirt and bra-let.
 
“This is not the baseball finals,” Beachendon snapped.
 
“It might make him feel at home,” said Dotty.
 
“He’s a hedge-fund manager trying to create a smokescreen around significant recent losses. The last thing he needs is a demented Boston Red Sox fan drawing attention to the fact that he can’t afford this picture. Dotty, you are the only person here whose mission it is not to let Stevie Brent buy. According to our sources he has negative equity of $4 billion. I don’t care if he sticks his arm up at the beginning, but sit on his paddle when the bidding gets above two hundred million pounds.”
 
Dotty left to locate her blue taffeta ball gown.

“Oh and Dotty,” Beachendon called after her. “Don’t offer him Coca-Cola—he shorted the stock far too soon—it’s up eighteen per cent.”
 
Earl Beachendon continued through his list of VIPs, making sure that each was linked to an appropriate minder.
 
“Mrs. Appledore? Thank you, Celine.”
 
“The Earl and Countess of Ragstone? Thank you, John.”
 
“Mr. and Mrs. Hercules Christantopolis? Thank you, Sally.”
 
“Mr. and Mrs. Mahmud? Lucy, very good.”
 
“Mr. and Mrs. Elliot Slicer the Fourth? Well done, Rod.”
 
“Mr. Lee Hong Quiuo—Xo? Thank you, Bai.”
 
“Mr. and Mrs. Bastri? Thank you, Tam.”
 
Venetia Trumpington-Turner raised her hand. “Who will be looking after the vendors?”
 
“That important and delicate job falls to our chairman,” replied Earl Beachendon.
 
Everyone nodded sagely.
 
“The rest of you are to make sure that the lesser mortals are in the correct place,” Earl Beachendon continued. “The directors of the world’s museums are in row H. The editors of the newspapers are in I. The rest of the press are not allowed out of their pen, apart from a few named journalists—Camilla has their details. The other High-Net-Worthers are to go in J, K, L and M. Top dealers in rows P and Q. I want the odd model and actress scattered in between the others just to add a bit of sparkle, but no one over the age of forty or a dress size eight is worthy of an upgrade. Any celebrity who is not an ‘A lister’ can stand.”
 
Beachendon stood tall and looked around. “Girls, go and reapply your lip gloss; boys, straighten your ties and line up by the entrance. Do your best.”

Mrs. Appledore’s limousine was making slow progress. The drive from Claridge’s to Houghton Street normally took ten minutes, but there were roadworks and diversions in place and traffic had slowed to a crawl around Berkeley Square. On this unusually warm July evening. London­ers, convinced that this was the first and last glimpse of sun, spilled out of pubs and on to pavements. Men took off their jackets, revealing dark damp patches under their arms, while women wore sundresses showing off pink prawn-like arms and legs. At least they look reasonably cheerful for once, Mrs. Appledore thought. The British are so dreary and taciturn during winter. As her car crept up Berkeley Street, she wondered if this would be her last great sale. She was eighty next year and her annual trip to the London auctions was losing its sheen. Once she knew everyone in the saleroom; more importantly, everyone knew her.

Mrs. Appledore kept her eyes fixed on the future but aspired to the manners and modus operandi of the past. She was born Inna Pawlokowski in Poland in 1935, and her youth had been spent on a Polish farm and then in a nunnery near Krakow. Cared for by nuns for the rest of the war, the young Inna was then sent, with three thousand fellow orphans, to America in 1948. She met her future husband Yannic on the refugee boat, the Cargo of Hope, and although they were only thirteen years old, he proposed as they passed the Statue of Liberty. She promised to bear him six children (she carried nine) and he vowed to make them both millionaires (his estate, when he died in 1990, was valued at $6 billion). On the day of their marriage in 1951, Inna and Yannic changed their names to Melanie and Horace Appledore and never again uttered a word of Polish. Their first business, started the day after their wedding, was a hire com-pany that rented suits and shoes to impoverished immigrants needing to look smart for job interviews. Soon Appledore Inc. expanded into prop-erties, sweatshops and then private equity. Knowing from personal expe-rience that immigrants worked far harder than natives, the Appledores provided seed funding for start-ups in return for a slice of the equity plus interest on capital. Thanks to the Displaced Persons Act, wave after wave of immigrants arrived on American shores and the Appledores helped and fleeced Europeans, Mexicans, Koreans, West Indians and Vietnamese. By the turn of the new century, Melanie and Horace owned small but signifi-cant and highly profitable stakes in family businesses across all fifty states.

Melanie understood that money alone did not guarantee a seat at the top table. Determined to make her mark on the upper echelons of Park Avenue society, she knew she needed to learn about standards and expec-tations in order to be ...

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Descripción VINTAGE, United States, 2016. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Finalist for the Baileys Women s Prize Annie McDee, thirty-one, lives in a shabby London flat, works as a chef, and is struggling to get by. Reeling from a sudden breakup, she s taken on an unsuitable new lover and finds herself rummaging through a secondhand shop to buy him a birthday gift. A dusty, anonymous old painting catches her eye. After spending her meager savings on the artwork, Annie prepares an exquisite birthday dinner for two--only to be stood up. The painting becomes hers, and Annie begins to suspect that it may be more valuable than she d thought. Soon she finds herself pursued by parties who would do anything to possess her picture: an exiled Russian oligarch, an avaricious sheikha, an unscrupulous art dealer. In her search for the painting s identity, Annie will unwittingly discover some of the darkest secrets of European history--and the possibility of falling in love again. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9781101872574

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Descripción VINTAGE, United States, 2016. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Finalist for the Baileys Women s Prize Annie McDee, thirty-one, lives in a shabby London flat, works as a chef, and is struggling to get by. Reeling from a sudden breakup, she s taken on an unsuitable new lover and finds herself rummaging through a secondhand shop to buy him a birthday gift. A dusty, anonymous old painting catches her eye. After spending her meager savings on the artwork, Annie prepares an exquisite birthday dinner for two--only to be stood up. The painting becomes hers, and Annie begins to suspect that it may be more valuable than she d thought. Soon she finds herself pursued by parties who would do anything to possess her picture: an exiled Russian oligarch, an avaricious sheikha, an unscrupulous art dealer. In her search for the painting s identity, Annie will unwittingly discover some of the darkest secrets of European history--and the possibility of falling in love again. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9781101872574

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