By Anna Hill
Content note: anorexia [breifly], fatphobia, racial stereotyping, very brief mention of rape
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild is a novel ostensibly about the transformative power of art and as such has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. The novel follows a woman named Annie who stumbles across a masterful painting in a junk shop, and the consequences of her purchasing it. She is plunged into the art world full of salacious gossip and billionaires and a potential new lover.
I will be up front with you – I didn’t think this should have been shortlisted; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all (for example, some chapters where written from the paintings perspective which was fun), I just felt like any kind of authenticity or innovation was missing. Not only was it structurally and linguistically dull, but it also employed tropes and traits that are actively harmful, repeated everywhere in media.
In some novels it doesn’t matter if the characters are two-dimensional because you are reading for the plot, but with The Improbability of Love, neither the characters nor the plot where interesting enough to really propel the story. Even the main character Annie is fairly simplistic and more disturbingly there are racialized caricatures throughout the novel. For example “Filipino servants”, who are only ever mentioned in connection to their race (and never say a word) and the wealthy Arabs; The Emir of Alwabbi and his domineering wife Sheika Midora who supposedly have links with Al-Qaeda. Add to the racist stereotyping an incredibly stereotypical representation of queerness, and more lazy and uninteresting writing occurs. There is one token queer person in the book – Barty is a socially mobile, white cisgender gay man who, unlike the majority of the other characters is left with no relationship and is seemingly only motivated by what he should wear to the next ridiculously extravagant art world event.
The book, as you might assume, features descriptions of art, but almost more intensely describes food – Annie works as a chef so we often hear about her love of food and her work in creating banquets for rich art dealers, collectors and historians. As a self-confessed food lover (I will consume as much chocolate as humanely possible in my life time!!) I tend to enjoy great descriptions of food that revel in the sensuality and vibrancy and fun of food and eating, like how Ruby Tandoh waxes lyrical about fast food in her vice column Dirty Eating, or how much I enjoy anyone talking to me about the pleasures of butter. Unfortunately though I have some major issues with Rothschild’s descriptions. Firstly a lot of the descriptions are incredibly contrived with clichéd phrases such as “each variety of vegetable suggested a story” or moments when Annie asks herself: “how could anyone think of an aubergine in such a disparaging way?”. And secondly, they are harmful in the simultaneous elevating of slim people who enjoy food and denigrating of fat people who do the same.
The fatphobia of the Improbability of love first comes to light with the overweight and lonely art historian Delores. Described in unfavourable terms and often supposed to provide comic relief, because, for example, she has leftover food on her face or clothing, Rothschild plays into the hegemonic idea that fat people and especially fat women are jokes and are not deserving of respect. Delores’ size is remarked on multiple times and in a lot of ways her fat body is seen as something to consume, something to watch, to point at. At her birthday banquet Annie describes her as “a vast animated sea anemone shimmying across the floor”, whilst all the other (slim) guests’ outfits are described in detail and without immediate judgement or animalisation. The representation of Annie’s love and obsession with food is palatable and serious only because she is slim; if a fat woman were to describe food at the length Annie does it would be comedic. When Annie gets a bit of food on her face Jesse (the love interest) finds it charming, but on a fat body it is repugnant, unattractive, gross. Annie herself is described in incredibly anorexic terms, for Jesse, the main love interest, “she had an ethereal dreamy quality, as if she wasn’t quite grounded but floating above earthly matters”. In other words it looks like she was light, thin, not heavy and full, the opposite of fat.
The other, even more worrying representation of fatness, comes in the form of Delia – a textbook example of fatphobic assumptions; Delia knows the TV schedule off by heart, is uncaring, eats too much food (according to her husband, “you…eat enough for nine”), is unintelligent (when she asks what a word means she is met with silence) and is jealous of the conventionally attractive slim women she sees on TV. In a really disgusting moment Delia says “he might have been a rapist” of Jesse when she refuses to let him in the house and her husband replies, disgustingly; “in your dreams woman, in your dreams.”.
When we consume media about food, particularly those that celebrate the creation and consumption of it, we need to keep questioning who is palatable and who isn’t. Fat characters and fat people are mistreated and affected negatively in most texts that focus on the pleasures of eating (and even those that don’t, such as the Harry Potter series). And this affects fat people’s quality of life. Fat people are more likely to struggle with employment and bullying/death threats or being told that the one way to solve any kind of illness or disability is to lose weight. Next time Hannah Rothschild writes a novel I hope she radically deconstructs her views on fatness and desirability instead of regurgitating tired, boring and harmful views.