Review: ‘The Swan Thieves’

The Swan ThievesThe Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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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.”

The Call of the Mountains: The Artists of Glacier National Park

Larry Len Peterson brings together in one book a representative selection of the artists who have been inspired by Glacier National Park along with commentary that places the work into a historical perspective.

The Call of the Mountains: The Artists of Glacier National Park (Mountain Press Publishing, 2002), is organized into four sections: “Sign Talkers: The Authors,” “Empire Builders: The Hills and Their Artists” “Shadow Catchers: The Photographers” and “Word Painters: Charles M. Russell and Friends.”

Author of over forty publications, Peterson is a collector of western art and the former chairman of the Charles M. Russell Museum’s advisory board.

Jerry Fetz, of Crown of the Continent E-Magazine writes, “The Call of the Mountains is an exceptional book, one that every admirer of Western art and Glacier National Park, separately but especially together, should own, look at again and again, and give to likeminded or even potentially like-minded friends and family members on special occasions. We owe Larry Len Peterson much gratitude for gathering these artists and works together, and for supplying extremely important textual background and information about the artists, their artistic works, and the amazing Glacier National Park that inspired them.”

A magical novel set in Glacier National Park

Glacier Artist-in-Residence Applications Due by February 15

Bowman Lake - NPS photo

Glacier National Park’s artist-in-residence program is open to artists and writers who want to experience the wonder of the park for four weeks this coming summer and, while there, donate their time, inspiration and creative work in support of the park’s environmental education program.

Applicants for the summer of 2011 will be reviewed based on their ability to “produce children’s educational art and materials including scientific illustrations, drawings and graphics; poetry, prose and stories; puppet shows, plays, and song lyrics (for existing or original music); music; and educational lesson plans and resource information guides. These products must be about Glacier and its plants, animals, habitats, geology, natural processes, history and beauty and suitable for use with elementary and middle school children. Thus, the 2011 Artist-in-Residence Program is open to children’s artists, writers, poets, composers, song writers, musicians and academics with relevant experience and backgrounds.”

Applications must be postmarked by February 15, 2011. Click here for information and the address for submissions. The National Park Service will make its selection of one or two individuals for the program in March for residencies to be conducted between mid-June and Labor Day.

Malcolm

A Glacier Park Adventure Available on Kindle