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The Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova

An artist of some renown, Robert Oliver, attacks a painting in the National Gallery. Although he is stopped before any damage is done, he is naturally held for psychiatric evaluation. Oliver ends up a patient of Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist living a solitary, ordinary life. A painter himself, Marlow attempts to bond with Oliver through art, but his patient steadfastly refuses to speak. Noticing that Oliver sketches the same woman over and over, Marlow begins interviewing Oliver’s colleagues and lovers, trying to determine what triggered the attack. A series of 19th century letters, written by a female Impressionist and treasured by Oliver, may provide the only physical clue to his behavior. As the letters are translated into English, the reader is swept back to the exciting days when Impressionism was new and bold.

If you were a fan of The Historian, Kostova’s previous novel, you’ll instantly recognize the author in The Swan Thieves. It uses many of the same devices: an academic on a quest for knowledge to solve a mystery, obsession with a person long lost, multiple narrators, letters and diary entries telling chunks of the story, exotic travel, and excruciating details about everything. But while I enjoyed Kostova’s vampire novel quite a bit, I found this story to be dreadfully dull. It’s nearly six hundred pages long, and by the three-quarter mark I was feeling the weight of every single page.

The first problem stems from the fact that Marlow, rather than treating Oliver, seems to adopt Oliver’s obsession as his own. He might claim that he’s interviewing Oliver’s ex-wife or former boss so that he can better understand his patient, but that’s BS. He just wants to find out the identity of the woman in Oliver’s art because, like Oliver, he has become obsessed with her face. As a psychiatrist, Marlow seems to be a dangerously intrusive one. He’s practically a stalker! He watches Oliver’s ex-wife through a window as she prepares dinner for her kids. Although his professional instincts tell him it’s a bad idea, Marlow begins dating Oliver’s former mistress. Marlow is dull and fussy, and the king of unnecessary detail – no one cares what he ate for dinner or his thoughts on traffic in the DC area, but he shares them anyway.

Oliver himself spends most of the novel in silence, but the man revealed in the memories of the women in his life is incredibly selfish. He is basically in love with a woman who painted in the 19th century, which is freaky enough, but he reacts to any inquiries about this woman in his paintings by shutting down and refusing to “deal” with life in the present.

Random note: It’s really strange that everyone always refers to him as Robert Oliver, not just Robert or Robbie or something like that. It’s always first AND last name. What’s up with that?

The historical sections of the novel, told through letters and third person narration, add very little to the main story of Oliver. It feels like an entirely different novel has been chopped up and mixed in with the mystery/psychological story Marlow’s trying to tell. Beatrice isn’t compelling enough on her own to justify Oliver’s interest in her, especially when one considers that her third person narrative episodes would be unknown to those researching her in the present, so while her actions are explained to us they remain murky to those in the book.

As an art historian and sometimes painter, I thought I’d enjoy this novel, but it was a tedious slog all the way through. Even if you enjoyed The Historian, as I did, I would not recommend this novel.

2.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Swan Thieves, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Flower in a Storm Vol. 2 by Shigeyoshi Takagi
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: News: Book ‘Ark’ at the V&A
2009: News: So how does on e follow up ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’?
2008: Jael’s Story by Ann Burton


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