Elizabeth Kostova has written a mysterious novel with finely-drawn characters, excellent descriptions of artists and the process of making art, and an engaging storyline. While “The Swan Thieves” is basically a modern-day story about a psychiatrist treating a troubled artist, the story unfolds via multiple points of view in multiple time periods.
Artist Robert Oliver attacks a painting of a swan at the National Gallery of Art and is subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital under the care of Andrew Marlow. It becomes clear that Oliver is obsessed with an unknown woman who appears in many of his sketches and paintings. Is this obsession connected to the attack on the painting? Neither the reader nor the psychiatrist can easily answer this question because Oliver refuses to speak. Marlow bends the rules and provides Oliver with paints and canvases, allowing Oliver to “speak” in a sense through the art he creates in his hospital room. But otherwise, he is mute.
Multiple Characters and Viewpoints
The mute and enigmatic artist is the axis on which the world of “The Swan Thieves” turns. This device enhances the mystery and gives Kostova and her psychiatrist the rationale for bringing a lot of other characters and their viewpoints into a plot that otherwise might unfold in half the time. To learn more about Oliver, Marlow visits the painter’s former wife Kate and former lover Mary and their relationships with Oliver are told as smaller stories within the book. Marlow also visits art experts and museums in multiple cities to find learn more about the real or imaginary woman Oliver paints over and over.
For the book to “work,” the reader must accept the fiction that a psychiatrist at a facility with many patients would go to such lengths—even to the point of becoming obsessed with Oliver’s obsession himself. Some of Kostova’s best writing in the book focuses on the techniques exhibited in the relevant paintings as well as the thoughts, viewpoints and brush strokes of artists at work. A cynical reviewer might suggest that the author was an artist and/or had a great love of impressionism and needed an excuse to spend a considerable amount of space writing about her avocation.
The World of Artists
As the device behind the plot structure is Oliver’s refusal to speak, the device behind the massive amount of detail about artists and their work is the fact that almost every character in the book, including psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, is a professional or highly skilled amateur painter. True, the matter of artists and their work is part of the “evidence” Marlow considers as he searches for Oliver’s demons. Yet, I cannot help but think that the “artists and their work” theme is a bit over done even though it has been done very well.
A Young Impressionist Painter from Another Time
The primary plot of “The Swan Thieves” is interrupted first by the presentation of the text of a series of letters between a promising artist, Beatrice, in the 1870s and her uncle (and artist) Olivier. Written in French, the letters are translated for Marlow over a period of some weeks, so they appear out of nowhere in between the other chapters. Subsequently, the letters chapters morph into chapters devoted to Beatrice and her life almost a century and a half ago.
The storylines finally come together, and by the time they do, the haunting puzzle with all its characters, paintings, artists, museums, easels, palettes and brushstrokes becomes a clear picture of obsession and its impact on others. “The Swan Thieves” has great depth in spite of its somewhat tortuous route to its conclusion.
Coming May 5th: A visit from Chelle Cordero, author of the new novel “Hyphema.”
My One School, an organization I support in the Orlando area, has entered the Pepsi Challenge to help raise money for local libraries. If you like the sound of this, you can vote here.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey,” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”