Reading guide for The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Swan Thieves

By Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2010,
    576 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2010,
    592 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. At the beginning of Chapter 2, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow confesses that the story he is going to tell is “not only private but subject to my imagination as much as to the facts.” In what ways does this prove to be true, in the course of the book? How does Marlow’s imagination affect the telling of his own story?

  2. Each of the artists in the book—Robert, Marlow, Mary, Kate, Béatrice, and Olivieris faced with choices between art and personal life. What are some of these dilemmas, and how does each character resolve or at least experience them?

  3. In Chapter 64, at their painting conference in Maine, Mary says to Robert, “‘I have the feeling that if I knew why you were still painting the same thing after so many years, then I would know you. I would know who you are.” Why does Robert paint Béatrice for years and how does his obsession with her shape his artwork? What other obsessions appear in the course of the book, in Robert and in other characters?

  4. Landscapes play an important role in The Swan Thieves, both in life and on canvas. What are the major landscapes of the book, and what effect do they have on the characters? 5. In Chapter 95, just before Marlow flies to Paris to learn more about Béatrice de Clerval, Mary tells him, “‘Please just let her die properly, the poor woman.’” What does she mean by this? Why is it important to her?

  5. The Swan Thieves is partly a study of love that bridges gaps across time and age—passion, mentoring, parenting. Which characters have these relationships? What do the old, or older, characters have to offer the younger ones? What do the younger ones offer their elders?

  6. At many points in the story, artists paint or sketch one another. What are these occasions and how is each significant to the story?

  7. In Étretat, as she considers her relationship with Olivier, Béatrice realizes that whatever happens between them “she must effect herself and live with later.” Is this true of other characters’ experiences? In what senses?

  8. The myth of Leda and the Swan surfaces repeatedly in the narrative. Where do we encounter it and what is its significance in each of the main characters’ lives? What other swans make an appearance in the book?

  9. Kate says of her second meeting with Robert Oliver, “His apparent unawareness of himself was mesmerizing.” What else mesmerizes other people about Robert? Why do some of the other characters find him compelling?

  10. On leaving the National Gallery at the end of Chapter 7, Marlow notes “that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum—relief at being returned to the familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world’s lack of mystery.” What museums appear in the novel? Is Marlow’s craving for mystery ultimately satisfied by museums or by “the world,” and in what ways?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Back Bay Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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