REVIEW of The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

Most of the books I purchase are by authors who died a century ago, and I rarely have the desire to leaf through a contemporary bestseller. But when it comes to Elizabeth Kostova, my chronological snobbery goes out the window. She is a contemporary author who is well worth the read.

I first encountered Kostova in her debut novel The Historian. In this book, she deftly weaves the medieval history and legends surrounding Count Dracula with a modern day narrative of a missing historian and his daughter. The story has the feel of a mystery novel, as the heroine uncovers more and more information about the vampire and her father’s whereabouts. The only disappointing piece of the novel was the ending, because–let’s face it–Dracula’s a lot scarier when he’s shrouded in mystery than when he emerges from a coffin in Spain to actually talk to you.

The Swan Thieves, Kostova’s second novel, mimics many of the best features of The Historian. Kostova writes in first person, and from multiple perspectives via journals and letters. She inserts a historical mystery into the tale which the main character must solve by doing research. While the suspense in this second book isn’t at such an intense level as in The Historian (Impressionist artists aren’t as scary as vampires), the lower level of tension ensures that there won’t be a big letdown in the denouement.

The story of The Swan Thieves is fairly simple, though it takes many pages to unfold. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist who could “get a stone to talk to him” has failed to get his new patient, an artist named Robert Oliver, to say anything. Oliver has been committed to his care after he tried attacking a painting with a penknife in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While in confinement in the psychiatric ward, the artist continually paints pictures of the same dark-haired woman, in different poses and with different expression. Frustrated and intrigued, the psychiatrist goes on a quest to discover who this woman, who so possesses Robert Oliver’s mind, really is.

As Marlow interviews the people from Oliver’s past, he discovers that it is these same enigmatic paintings that have separated the artist from everyone who loved him. Oliver’s ex-wife Kate threw him out in jealousy, thinking that they were pictures of a student he was having an affair with. Oliver’s new girlfriend Mary felt the same jealousy, but she had the perspicacity to realize that they weren’t paintings of a live woman at all, but of an Impressionist artist long dead. Marlow forms a romantic connection with Mary, making him wonder if it is in his own best interest to cure his patient. If the artist gets over his obsession, will Mary desert Marlow and return to Robert Oliver?

When the psychiatrist delves deeper  into Oliver’s history, he finds that the mysterious dark-haired woman was an Impressionist painter named Beatrice de Clerval. Oliver, having seen a portrait of her in a museum, had fallen in love with her, becoming obsessed with her life and work. Beatrice’s letters, interspersed throughout the novel, reveal more about her character–a promising young painter who specialized in swans and stopped painting at the age of 29. Once the mystery of the woman’s identity has been solved, Marlow finds that a greater mystery blocks his way. What strange event in Beatrice de Clerval’s life made Robert Oliver so incensed that he would attack a painting in a museum?

It wasn’t long after I cracked the cover of The Swan Thieves that I noticed the remarkable similarities between this book and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. In both cases we have a historical mystery with made up characters inserted into the literary/artistic world. Byatt creates a great Victorian poet, Randolph Ash, to rub shoulders with Tennyson and Browning. Kostova creates an Impressionist artist named Beatrice de Clerval to mingle with Manet, Monet, and Pissarro. In both cases, the fictional genius has a concealed love affair which provides the key to his/her work. In both cases, there are letters left behind which gradually unfold the story. The sleuths dedicated to unraveling the riddle have their own love affairs, parallel to the pseudo-historical characters whom they are studying.

Though the plot lines in Byatt and Kostova’s books can be compared, there is one main difference in approach which make the works wholly separate from each other. Byatt glories in the technicalities of Victorian poetry, lending a sublimity and realism to Possession, but perhaps boring and bewildering readers who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of verse. Kostova describes painting and painters in a colorful but simple way that non-artists can easily understand, creating a more accessible novel.

One of the drawbacks of The Swan Thieves is Kostova’s insistence on exploring every facet of Robert Oliver’s love life. Kate and Mary reminisce about all of their bedroom encounters with him, in ways that make both Marlow and the reader uncomfortable, providing a tribute to Robert’s godlike body but advancing the plot in no way at all.

But despite these overshares, The Swan Thieves is on the whole a well-crafted novel. If I were in the habit of giving stars to books, this one would be four out of five.

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