This is the second book by Elizabeth Kostova (her first was the phenomenal success, The Historian). Somehow I’d missed The Historian – it was the first debut novel to make no 1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list. I’d missed all the hoopla.
So I didn’t come to The Swan Thieves with overladen expectations.
Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist, has a new patient – up and coming contemporary artist, Robert Oliver. Oliver is detained after being caught at the National Gallery trying to slash a painting, saying ‘I did it for her’. Thereafter, he doesn’t speak, and as Marlow tries to piece together Oliver’s story, he increasingly gets pulled in and eventually abandons professional detachment and sets off on a quest to discover what motivated Oliver.
Marlow falls into Oliver’s life, and along the trail that leads through the world of Impressionist and contemporary artists.
The characters of Oliver’s world intertwine with characters from history, through Oliver’s paintings.
I got very engrossed in it, and caught myself struggling to stay awake way past my bedtime to read it. The prose of the description of passion, restraint, art, love, the past, the present, and intimations of the future, are really seductive. Even though I know it’s fiction, I really want to see the fictional paintings by Béatrice de Clerval and Robert Oliver because of the way Kostova has painted them in prose. Rich, textured, emotional, multi-dimensional.
For returning fans, there are some obvious Kostova trademarks: big chunks of historical setting and detail, lots of research, voices past and present uniting to solve a mystery.
It takes time to build, and while it gradually gains momentum, it never moves along at a furious pace. Weirdly for me, my arc through the book was unexpected. I was patient in the beginning with the set up; I got totally pulled into it as the characters and plot developed. But I found the dénouement disappointing.
The destination did not live up to the journey.
Still, while not a GREAT book, it’s a good read, and I truly did love the writing: the journey itself is worth the reading investment.
And I did like it enough to go buy The Historian – but more on that another time.