Title: The Swan Thieves
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
Genre: Historical Fiction
How I Read It: Hard cover purchased by me.
Synopsis: Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, has brutally attacked a canvas in the National Gallery of Art. What would compel an artist to destroy something he values beyond all else? From the confines of his hospital room, Oliver maintains a stubborn silence, offering only the briefest explanation before he stops speaking altogether: “I did it for her.”
But who is she? Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow prides himself on his ability to make even a stone talk, but he gets nowhere with Oliver. Driven at first by professional curiosity, and then by a determination that disrupts his ordered, careful world, Marlow embarks on an unconventional pursuit of the answers his patient won’t provide, and on a journey into the lives of the women Oliver left behind.
As these women paint a portrait of love, betrayal, and artistic obsession, Marlow is pulled deeper within the mind of a troubled genius. Carefully braiding the strands of a life undone, he finds surprising possibilities in a package of century-old love letters. The voices in these letters soon tell their own story, one of secret passions and heartbreaking treachery, and they bring France of the late 1800s blazingly alive. Does the key to unlock the mystery lie in a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism?
*Synopsis taken from the book jacket
My Review: I was excited to pick this book up, since I enjoyed the authors first novel quite a bit, and I was hoping it would be as rewarding a book as The Historian. After reading it, I can say I have mixed feelings, so I’ll hit my least favorite pieces first.
This is a slow, methodical, and somewhat plodding book at times. We’re presented with the idea of Marlow trying to get to the bottom of Oliver’s illness, but to me it was apparent rather quickly that the illness is just a plot device for Marlow to finally find himself. And all his extra focus into Oliver’s illness, rather than treating him like the other patients or spending as much time on them, really got to me.
Ultimately, I think that was my biggest problem with the story: it was supposed to be about Oliver, but wasn’t really about him at all. I wanted to see more deeply into Oliver’s illness, because he clearly is mentally ill, and I never felt like the expectation was fulfilled. For example, by the end of the book, we learn why he really attacked the painting, but the interesting question to me all along was why did he become obsessed with this mystery woman to begin with? It’s not normal to paint the same random person over and over again for years, and I’m sure Oliver didn’t have the full story at the beginning, so I would have loved to see more about what was at the core of this to begin with.
Marlow is supposed to be this great psychiatrist, but we never get to see why this is, and instead he seems to have so little insight into himself that it’s almost as though he’s a bit mad just like his patients are supposed to be. He seems to think that all he needs is his work, painting, and running, but the way his focus is drawn to practically every woman he runs across sure makes it seem like he’s obsessed with finding a partner. As the reader, we also know that at the time he is supposedly writing the story he has a wife, but didn’t back when the story was taking place. That, coupled with the way he felt about all these women, made me think early on that this was going to turn into his love story. If this novel had been presented as that, I might have enjoyed it more, but this was a bit irritating to me. I’m not sure if it’s crossing some ethical boundaries to talk so much about your attraction to all the women a patient was ever involved with, but it sure gets annoying to the reader.
I also felt like a lot of things happened purely out of convenience, like there was an end goal in mind but no real plan of how to get there story wise. The last seventy or so pages were wrapping up all the loose ends in the story, and I just didn’t love the way that happened. If nothing else, the supposed central conflict to the story, being Oliver’s illness, just seemed to resolve by magic. I couldn’t buy the explanation given for his illness, again because I think it started before he knew the full story, so I didn’t feel like he was cured at all. And I certainly didn’t feel like Marlow did much to help him.
Also, everyone keeps commenting on Oliver’s size – there are numerous situations where he is described as an enormous man, separate from his commanding presence. Marlow talks about it quite a bit, which was just weird to me. Anyway, when we finally get a description of how tall he is, it turns out he’s 6’2! Which is tall, don’t get me wrong, but I would never say that’s a huge person. No one ever says what his build is like, or his weight, so I started out with the impression that this guy is pushing 7 feet and is built like a basketball player, when it turns out he’s just a slightly taller than average man. He wouldn’t have to duck to get through doors, or have modifications made to his vehicle to accommodate his size.
At some point during the book, I decided to set these frustrations aside and just read the story. I accepted that those particular points were flawed, and there would hopefully be other redeemable qualities elsewhere. After that, I found that I really loved the descriptions of the scenery, hearing how an artist may look at a coastline or forest differently than I do. As a non-artist, I was intrigued by the descriptions of color, paint, and painting as a whole. I couldn’t really identify with that aspect of the characters lives, but I did appreciate it. The impact that Robert Oliver had on the lives he touched was also interesting, although it did make me long for a story just about him.
In the end, nothing exactly happens in this book, and although I did have these problems with it, I still enjoyed it. Sometimes, we as readers don’t need a big climax or a read that will change our lives, so this book was a nice change from some of the heavier material.
Read this book if: This was okay historical fiction and interesting art fiction. It’s probably worth a try for people who like historical fiction and semi-mysteries. I have a bit of a hard time knowing who to recommend it to.
My Rating: 3/5 – Two thumbs up, fine holiday fun!