The Swan Thieves
By Elizabeth Kostova
Completed March 28, 2011
The Swan Thieves, the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, has many themes: the artist, the lover, French Impressionism, insanity and obsession. A stout novel, it’s not a surprise that it encompasses so many themes, but under the writing mastery of Kostova, they manage to flow together, like watercolors on a canvas.
At the heart of this novel is troubled artist, Robert Oliver, who becomes obsessed with a minor French Impressionist painter, Beatrice de Clerval. Robert was taken by her beauty, but it was her art that intrigued him the most. When finally losing it at the National Gallery of Art, Robert is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital and placed under the care of Dr. Andrew Marlow.
Marlow knows Robert is no ordinary patient, and despite Robert’s unwillingness to speak, Marlow begins piecing together Robert’s life through interviews with Robert’s ex-wife, Kate, and former lover, Mary. Marlow is adamant that if he could learn more about the woman in Robert’s paintings, it would aid his recovery. Marlow’s quest for knowledge takes him multiple places, from Mexico to France, with the reader in tow.
The book is told from multiple viewpoints but never from Robert’s, which is an interesting way of creating a character. We develop Robert’s character through the eyes of his wife, lover, psychiatrist and professional acquaintances. Even the mysterious Beatrice gets her own voice through letters and short narratives. I always wonder, when an author constructs a character this way, how accurate the portrayal could be. Wouldn’t it be nice to crawl inside Robert’s head – just once?
While I enjoyed this book, it does have a major drawback: its length. There were many long-building moments that could have been tightened for the reader. The book kept my interest, but it could have benefited from less pages and side stories.
Despite this flaw, I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who love art history, especially French Impressionism. Kostova, despite her long-windedness, is an apt writer, and she fills her pages with landscapes, colors and backgrounds. It was a beautifully told story. ( )