By Robin Jacobson.
Kids dig in the backyard searching for buried treasure. Adults roam flea markets hoping to spot the one precious item hidden in the jumble of useless odds and ends. It’s fun to fantasize about discovering a priceless prize; not surprisingly, many novels build their plots around such discoveries. Two recent examples are Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink and Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love. Kadish’s novel concerns a hidden trove of 17th-century letters from London’s Jewish community. Rothschild’s novel is about a long-missing Rococo masterpiece, once belonging to German Jews, that resurfaces in a junk shop. Both books are entertaining and informative reads.
Rachel Kadish weaves together two tales of scholarly women in London, one set in modern times and the other in the 1660s. In the contemporary story, Helen Watt, an ailing British professor of Jewish history, receives a phone call from a former student about a cache of old letters discovered under the staircase of his historic home. Helen swiftly determines that the letters are written in Hebrew and Portuguese and date from the 17th century. She hires an American graduate student, Aaron Levy, to help translate and analyze them. Racing to stay ahead of rival historians, this literary detective duo determine that the mysterious scribe writing the letters is a brilliant young Jewish woman, Ester Velasquez, the ward of a blind rabbi. Ester’s writings illuminate life within the first Jewish community in London established after England lifted its four-century ban against Jews.
In the 17th-century story, Ester and the blind rabbi are characters; they are immigrants to London from Amsterdam. As the story progresses, Ester feels increasingly trapped by the religious and cultural mores of her community and covertly flouts them. She takes on a man’s identity to secretly correspond with the innovative thinkers of her time, including Benedict Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community. Ester’s correspondence enthralls Helen and Aaron as a first-hand report on a Jewish community about which little was known. More personally, Ester’s courage inspires Helen and Aaron to confront unresolved issues in their own lives.
Hannah Rothschild is the chair of London’s National Gallery Board of Trustees; her knowledge of the art world lends authenticity to her lively novel of cutthroat art dealers, scholars, and collectors. “The Improbability of Love” is the name of a fictional masterwork by an actual 18th-century Rococo artist, Jean-Antoine Watteau. In the novel, one of the painting’s past owners is a Jewish family destroyed in the Holocaust; readers gradually learn who stole the painting and why.
Missing for years, the painting turns up in a London secondhand shop and is purchased on impulse by Annie McGee. Annie has no notion of the painting’s significance or value. She is focused on trying to rebuild her life following the break-up of a long-term romantic and business partnership. Annie’s mother, Evie, a colorful alcoholic whom Annie regularly bails out of jail, is convinced that the painting is special. Evie drags Annie to London’s Wallace Collection to compare the painting with others on display. There they meet Jesse, an engaging docent and aspiring artist, who persuades Annie to let him help her investigate the painting’s provenance.
Meanwhile, Annie works as a chef for a fine art gallery. Rothschild describes in delicious detail Annie’s imaginative themed dinner events showcasing particular paintings or artistic periods. But why did Rothschild choose to have the painting narrate its history? The “talking painting” passages are rather silly. Still, this is a minor distraction from a mostly charming book.