On the Improbability of Butterflies

I don’t know whether the similarities between Hanni Münzer’s Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt and Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love (Bloomsbury, 2015) would have struck me so clearly if I hadn’t read them one after the other.

Both feature a love story tangled up in a whodunnit, are told from a range of characters’ viewpoints and relate both to the nature of love and to the dark secrets of World War II and the Holocaust. Both also rely heavily on coincidence and feature difficult mother-daughter relationships.

The title Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt translates as “While There Are Butterflies” and it was published by Eisele Verlag in 2017. I translated a couple of sample chapters for the publisher and liked it enough to want to read the rest.

The blurb (my translation):

After Penelope’s life was struck by disaster, she has largely withdrawn from the world. She dares not believe in the possibility that happiness or love could return to her life. But then she meets the octogenarian Trudi Siebenbürgen – a fascinating woman with a mysterious past. Her new neighbour Jason also has a unique role to play in shaping Penelope’s new path. And slowly, Penelope learns that the world is full of wonder for those who will see it.

Now, from that, the cover and what I’d read and translated already, I wasn’t expecting to suddenly find myself reading a mini police procedural in the middle of this book as Penelope and Jason find themselves potential witnesses in a case of kidnapping and murder! I thought I knew where the book was going, and it wasn’t there…

Hanni Münzer - Solange es Schmetterlinge gibt

Judging a book by its cover – does this look like a crime/romance mash-up to you?

Penelope is a primary school teacher who has been trying to slip through life unnoticed and unseen since the tragedy that broke up her family and her marriage. She has a strained relationship with her mother and lives alone with her cat. Then she forms an unlikely friendship with her elderly neighbour Trudi, who has her own secrets and tumultuous past, and enters into a whirlwind relationship with the aforementioned Jason, who moves in upstairs and churns up her quiet existence. All kinds of strands bind Penelope and her family to Trudi and Jason in what Trudi sees as the web of fate. I can’t now find a source for the quote that a novel is allowed one major and one minor coincidence, but Hanni Münzer definitely exceeds her quota!

There is a lot here about the psychology of grief as well as love, and the need to accept and move on from the past. I found these parts moving, mostly in a good way, yet the book as a whole was slightly unbalanced because of the huge range of plot strands. On getting to the end, I discovered that some of the loose ends relate to Hanni Münzer’s Honigtot saga, so although it works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, that is something to be aware of.  Fortunately, I have just managed to find a copy of Honigtot in the local library (one of about only 5 German books that they stock!) so I will see how they come together.

The mystery element of The Improbability of Love is clearer from the outset:

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered. Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by exiled Russian oligarchs, avaricious Sheikas, desperate auctioneers and unscrupulous dealers, all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’. Delving into the painting’s past, Annie will uncover not just an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so she might just learn to open up to the possibility of falling in love again.

Now here, if I hadn’t had the book highly recommended by our lovely local independent bookseller and seen the glowing reviews from quality newspapers, or known that it had won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and been shortlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wouldn’t have got past the Prologue. It seemed to be nothing but a mass of clunky clichés, and snobbish at that. Those lures were just about enough to keep me reading (that and the fact that I had nothing else to read while waiting for Son2 to finish his piano lesson). In the end, that paid off because the book is entertaining enough.

I wasn’t sure that the love story and the lessons in art history always gelled, and I felt that the plot could have benefitted from some trimming to keep it moving. And I could definitely have done without the sections narrated by the painting itself! Towards the end, I was skimming large chunks so as to find out what happened next. (Maybe on a second reading I’d be able to take it all in better.) Here, there is just the one major coincidence, which happens early on, and about which Hannah Rothschild is sufficiently upfront to get away with.

These are both slightly frustrating, rather sprawling novels, but I enjoyed them both and would recommend either to anyone looking for a novel that’s easy to read yet with a bit of depth.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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