Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, became the biggest-selling hardback novel in US history when it was published in 2005. Can Kostova follow up that success with another equally intriguing tale? Coming in at 564 pages, The Swan Thieves is a canvas big enough to contain an interesting mystery with space left over for many pages of evocative, descriptive passages. I think Kostova’s fans will enjoy this book. The early sections are too long and plodding for my taste, but the story comes together nicely and the pace increases as the quasi-gothic plot unfolds.
The story opens with Robert Oliver’s attempted destruction of the painting titled, ‘Leda’, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. After trying to slash the painting, Robert falls almost totally silent; only saying cryptically, “I did it for her.” Psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow becomes Robert’s doctor. Dr. Marlow is an amateur painter and according to his colleague he, “…could get a stone to talk.” After being admitted to the mental facility where Dr Marlow is on staff, Robert remains almost mute for a year. Dr. Marlow finally has to try to piece together the mystery of Robert’s illness without his patient’s help.
Dr. Marlow turns to Robert’s ex-wife, Kate and his former girlfriend, Mary to learn his story. These women recount their history with Robert in rambling first person narratives. They conjure up amazingly miniscule levels of detail in the retelling of their memories of Robert. Interestingly, Marlow’s only source of information about Robert comes from the two women that he alienated the most. They don’t provide a very flattering image of the egotistical man who has been obsessively painting and repainting the picture of one woman for years. Neither Kate nor Mary knows who the mystery woman is.
[amazonify]031606579X[/amazonify]The key to unlocking the secrets of Robert’s mind could lie in the antique letters he’s fixated on. The letters, interspersed between Kate and Mary’s memories, slowly provide clues about the object of Robert’s mental agitation. The letters, written in the late 1870’s, are between Beatrice de Clerval Vignot and her husband’s uncle, Olivier. Both were painters caught up in the excitement of the new Impressionism period just emerging in France. They were also caught up in a budding infatuation despite their familial connection and the gaping gap in their ages.
Does that pique your curiosity? Good, because that’s about all I can say about the plot without giving away the ending. There are lovely descriptive passages about the life of an artist, and the physical mechanics of painting. Through Beatrice and Olivier’s letters we can also relive the beginning of the era of French Impressionism. Without spoiling anything, I can let you know that eventually we do discover why Robert attacked the painting in the gallery. You might need to be ready to skim over some passages if you’re not an aficionado of a sprawling, exceptionally detailed story. I do think fans of The Historian will enjoy The Swan Thieves.
Krista lives just outside the urban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. Lamentably, her work as a technical writer and business analyst often interferes with her reading which is a true passion.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Back Bay Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.