The Swan Thieves
‘The Swan Thieves’ promises to be a saga about love, obsession, art and history, similar to Kostova’s bestselling debut, The Historian. The characters in the present are irresistibly drawn to the past and history manifests in their own lives in tangible, life altering forms. Robert Oliver is the genius artist we romanticise, love and hate. When he attacks a painting at the National Gallery of Art, he is taken into psychiatric care and becomes the patient of Dr. Marlow, also a hobbyist painter. Marlow is drawn into the mysteries behind Robert’s obsessions with French impressionism and in particular the artist Beatrice De Clerval, whose letters to her artist uncle Olivier Vignot, Robert possesses and is obsessed by.
Kostova treats us to the cinema of a painter’s mind, lush watercolours, nuanced
brushstrokes ,every detail in place .There is a gradual, layered and intelligent build up. You feel like you are in New York of the eighties when Robert and his lover (later wife) navigate the art world. You empathise with artist Beatrice living in 19th century France who lives ahead of her time, when her intense genius is suppressed by the need to conform. With Kate keeping her dignity intact even though Robert has wrecked it without explanations of the coherent kind. There is Marlow who crosses all professional boundaries to understand Robert even if out of a personal fascination for an extreme pursuing of art that he himself hasn’t done in his comparatively sane psychiatric practice. Robert himself never speaks much during the period of his treatment and that’s probably why you never get an authentic insight into his tormented mind throughout the book.
Kostova takes us into the mind of love, into the staid atmosphere of its remnants, of Robert’s girlfriend Mary, the then scandalous relationship between a young Beatrice and her aging uncle who she knows will die leaving her to hold their secret for life. Marlow lets love cross the forbidden line of professionalism. Lush prose and a handholding into the geography of these characters, painting by the French Channel, teaching in a suburban art school in Virginia. You are there, almost, but you would want this to be offset by mastery of plot. The narrative pace is mostly competent; the beginning of the book turns out to be a page-turner. However, Kostova falters in the end when you sense a sudden constructed-ness. Letters as narrative devices? Sure. But Marlow imagines a letter that Olivier Vignot might have written to his niece. Suspension of disbelief suspended. The plot comes together as a quick tying together of the mysteries which after 500 hundred odd pages of lush prose and crazed expectation disappoints.
Historical mystery, love stories, and the obsessive ness that accompanies the transcending of the ordinary, anchored by bright, engaging prose.