Book Review: The Swan Thieves

I read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova a while ago and thought it was time for an improved version of my initial review. I like my books neatly stacked on the shelf and my book reviews – in one place. So I am stacking here.

I have tried a couple of times to read Kostova’s other novel, The Historian, but the writing didn’t work for me. I thought it was a little snobby in its redundancy and not compelling enough to make up for that. The Swan Thieves I loved, for its depth and balance of emotions as much as the writing.

Our protagonist, Andrew Marlowe, has a successful career as a psychiatrist and a fulfilling hobby – painting. His ordinary life is shaken as renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a painting in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient. To unravel the mysterious condition of the tormented genius, Marlowe sets off to meet with Robert’s wife Kate and Mary, his mistress, each giving him a piece of the puzzle to understanding Robert. The last and most important one lies in the past.

The narrative relies on retrospection in alternating POVs – Marlowe’s, Kate’s and Mary’s. The catalyst of the drama, the underlying cause for the worsening of Robert’s obsession, is the parallel story of a fictional 19th century painter, Beatrice de Clerval, and her love affair.

Plot comes secondary to characters, whom Kostova builds with dexterity out of the distinctive perceptions they have for Robert and his mania, the way they react and talk about it. Kate’s, story rests on practical considerations and simple truths; Mary’s – on the grandeur of a doomed romance. Kate deals with the consequences of his obsession, shielding her family and creating a world of normality without Robert in it; Mary refuses to admit there were consequences and struggles to fit in his imaginary world.
Marlowe, our protagonist, much like the reader, has to construct his idea of this mysterious artist and build on it through his own passion for art (which, we are given to understand, is a diametrical opposite of Robert’s and in this contrast, an illustration itself).

The book does a great job with describing art and artists in their different level of dedication – from the prolific manic Robert, to the genius Beatrice, the studious Mary, the busy Kate, who has surrendered her love for art to transfer it to her family, and then Marlow, who tries to fit somewhere between these extremities.

I also have to say, although it will sound weird, that I found the weight and feel of this book complementary to its penchant for drama. Every time I opened it I felt almost physically shifted in some way, by the mere volume in my hands, to a state that resonated with the quiet intensity and passion of this book.

Definitely a rewarding read!

Have you read it? Have you read any other of Elizabeth Kostova’s novels? I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments – feel free to post a link to your own reviews of her books!

photo credit: JustDelane via photo pin cc

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