The Swan Theives by Elizabeth Kostova

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Elizabeth Kostava’s second novel begins with a mysterious dream-like tableau: an artist is painting a wintry scene from the shelter of his studio when, at a distance, a woman crosses his line of vision and then walks away disappearing into a wall of white created by a gust of snow. The painter quickly paints the dark form of the woman on to his canvas so that even after she is gone her image remains forever in his painting. Having planted that little impressionistic scene in our thoughts the author launches into the story of Robert Oliver, described as a brilliant and celebrated modern artist who is caught in the act of trying to slash a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The painting he has threatened depicts the mythical story of Leda and the Swan. Robert Oliver is fortunate in  that the authorities recognize he is suffering from a mental illness so that instead of being charged with malicious vandalism he becomes the patient of a psychiatrist named Andrew Marlow who has a reputation for helping extremely difficult patients. Robert Oliver has stopped speaking and has withdrawn into himself so that Dr. Marlow must seek out those who have known and loved him in order to discover his history and a course of treatment for his illnesss.

Dr. Marlow has several sources of information to help him in his quest to solve the riddle of Robert Oliver’s illness. One of these is a bundle of letters the artist has in his possession. These letters were written in the 1870’s and are the hand-written correspondence between a young female impressionist painter named Beatrice de Clerval and her much older uncle, Olivier Vignot, also an artist. Another clue to Robert Oliver’s madness is the image of a dark haired woman he keeps painting over and over again. Dr. Marlow is intrigued and remember: he does not have the benefit of that first scene that Elizabeth Kostava describes for her readers at the very beginning of the book, he is inspired to go to great lengths to help his patient. So at this point we follow Dr. Marlow as he travels from Washington DC to North Carolina to interview Robert Oliver’s ex wife, Kate and then back to Washington to interview Robert’s most recent lover, Mary. The dedicated doctor also travels to New York, Mexico and finally to Paris in order to understand what is going on in the artist’s mind while the artist himself remains back at a private hospital for the mentally ill where he spends his time painting and repainting the image of the dark haired woman.

This book is beautifully written but flawed in many ways. Although it is said that ‘comparisons are odious’, I can’t help being a bit ‘odious’ myself noting that this novel does not measure up to the author’s first, The Historian, which is a densely atmospheric Vampire novel so infused with a sense of inescapable evil it would have earned Bram Stoker’s admiration. The Swan Thieves on the other hand, is light and almost whimsical novel, touching briefly on the darker side of mental illness. We see the effect Robert Oliver’s illness has had on the lives of the people around him but not how he developed this illness; this obsession with a woman who he has never known and who lived in another century and to whom he is attached so fanatically by the letters she has written and the few paintings she has painted.

The novel is multi-layered with each character having his or her own story to tell so that the person telling the story changes from Andrew to Kate to Mary and then occasionally, the omniscient narrator takes up the thread of the narrative. Here the author is very skilful in making each voice sound entirely individual. The novel is also peppered with a reproduction of the letters exchanged between Beatrice de Clerval and Olivier Vignot and there are some nice transitions back and forth in time. However, the overall effect of this style makes the novel a bit uneven especially when for example the author drops using the letter writing device and just starts narrating the story of Beatrice and Olivier.

I have the impression that the author began this novel by creating Andrew Marlow and used the other characters, including the character at the heart of the story Robert Oliver, to fill in details around him. Andrew Marlow is a likeable but odd sort of fellow constantly searching for a soul mate. When he finds that soul mate in the person of his patient’s ex mistress the author does not explain how he, as a physician, rationalized his professional code of ethics nor how he explained the affair to the patient he was treating. There are definitely a few problems with the plot

I think this novel would have been far more satisfying if the author had shown how the character of Robert Oliver came to be so caught up in the life of a minor painter of the 19th century. We understand that her talent seems to have been never fully developed because she stopped painting soon after she gave birth to her only child. There is a sense that Robert Oliver’s depression was derived from the immensity of this loss but we are never made privy to his thoughts. Which reminds me of a similar lucarne that exists in Carol Sheild’s final book Unless wherein the principal character’s daughter is suffering from a depression caused by the obsessive idea that women in modern society are hopelessly doomed to lives that will be forever unfulfilled. As in the Swan Thieves, there is no explanation of how the character arrived at what became an obsessive idea that threatened to ruin her life. Perhaps this reflects the fact there is so much still to be learned about mental illness and the workings of the human mind. However, I think that a novelist might be able to imagine some of the steps that leads one into such an obsessive state.

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6 thoughts on “The Swan Theives by Elizabeth Kostova

  1. I never read her earlier book since vampires have zero appeal for me but I was interested more in this one. And your review initially made me think I should go and get this one. But then when I read your comments about the flaws I began to have doubts. I don’t need books to come to completely neatly wrapped endings but I do need to have some answers and it seems this one has too many unanswered questions

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    1. I hope my comments were balanced because Elizabeth Kostova’s writing is quite enjoyable. I would not pass over The Historian, it is an excellent read and really I should not have called it a vampire book. I loved it for its insight into places such as Istanbul and the Balkins, places that seem distant and mysterious.

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  2. Great and detailed review. I agree also about The Historian. A hard act to follow
    , as all its threads worked so well, as wasn’t the case with this one. I often wonder when someone hits the spot with a first novel, so completely, and then is of centre with their second, whether it would have been better (for them) if their flawed second could have been their first and then the reader of the second would not have had such high, almost bound to be disappointed, expectations. I’m thinking of Stef Penney and Diane Setterfield who both wrote wonderful firsts which made the fine but not wonderful seconds a bit limp, by comparison. Not to mention Donna Tartt’s second, though in my mind Goldfinch is another blazing one!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree with what you have said about Donna Tart’s work… although she publishes infrequently; only every ten years (sadly for us). I have noticed that some first novels are highly worked as if every paragraph was revised over and over again in the pursuit of some ideal of perfection. The Historian has a very ponderous beginning and is overwrought in places although I loved its atmospheric evocation of Eastern Europe where under every little hillock there may be found the ruins of an old castle or a cathedral. The Swan Thieves on the other hand is written with a lighter touch almost as if the author started writing one day just to see where it would lead.

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