Sorry readers, it’s been forever! I’ve been taking it easy in the new year. This is a book I finished in December, I just haven’t gotten around to finishing the post.
There is a lot of debate about this novel. There are those who think that it is slow and boring, or that it requires someone with a passion for and extensive knowledge of fine art. There are others (a smaller number) who think the novel is brilliant. I am part of the latter group. The Swan Thieves was an absolutely beautiful novel, as long as the reader accepts it for what it is. True, it does not have a swiftly-moving plot. It is not full of action or danger. Rather it is a stunning exploration of human emotion and psychology.
It tells the story of Robert Oliver, a brilliant artist who, at the height of his fame, suffers a psychotic breakdown and attempts to vandalize a work of art at the National Gallery in Washington DC. He is admitted to a mental hospital, where his psychiatrist is unable to get Oliver to speak a word about what he is feeling and why he attacked the painting. Andrew Marlowe, Oliver’s psychiatrist, embarks on a journey to find out everything he can about Oliver’s life. He takes it a little beyond his professional duties, as the information he uncovers from Oliver’s ex-wife, his mistress, his co-workers and others who interacted with him in the art world is fascinating and disturbing. For years, Oliver has obsessively painted the same woman, at times losing sleep and missing work to paint her. He takes lovers but can never be satisfied, and Marlowe discovers that his one true love seems to be this mysterious woman so lovingly painted by Oliver. At the same time, Marlowe is reading love letters from one 19th-century painter to another. These letters were stolen from Oliver and are the pivotal clue in unraveling the mystery of Robert Oliver. The chapters are intermittently interrupted by flashbacks to the 19th-century couple.
As each of Oliver’s lovers tells their tale (and as Marlowe seeks to understand how they give insight into Oliver’s psyche), a beautiful and heartbreaking story emerges about the obsession of a brilliant mind and the impossible love he has for a women 60 years dead. Elizabeth Kostova’s words are expertly chosen and placed to create deep emotion and suspense in the reader. I was gripped from start to finish. Despite its lack of action, this novel is by no means slow or dull. And in spite of its specialized language in the realm of fine art, I found myself being educated, rather than being left behind. Kostova’s ability to draw in a reader who is neither painter nor art enthusiast is impressive. The dual stories, of Oliver and Marlowe in the present and the two artists in the past, seem unrelated until the last moment, when Kostova reveals the final piece of the puzzle and resolves the questions that have been burning in the reader’s mind since the beginning of the novel.
Despite the fact that this book is hugely thick, I had no problem getting through it. I wanted to pick it up every day and read as much as I possibly could. It is a brilliant, lovely work and I would recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for beautiful language and even a little hint of mystery.