Elizabeth Kostova's second novel will delight some readers and disappoint others. Though she explores love, travels through time and place, and provides a satisfying mystery, these similarities to The Historian do not conceal the reality that The Swan Thieves is quite a different novel. I was completely satisfied by the story and happy I did not need to wait any longer for it. At the same time, a lack of depth and some structural problems made me wonder if she felt rushed. After all, she took ten years to write The Historian and only four to write The Swan Thieves.
In a letter to readers on her website, Kostova tells us that her book is about obsession, painting and love. On the surface that's true, but there's much more going on in this story. Robert Oliver is obsessed with painting, with a mysterious woman and with himself. He is the type of male genius who is dangerous to women; who will always break their hearts; cannot handle parenthood, commitments, or regular schedules; yet he takes center stage in their lives.
The two living women in Robert's life become obsessed with him. His ex-wife Kate, also a painter, abandons her art in order to give her children a "normal" life, while his ex-girlfriend paints with increased quantity and quality after the relationship ends. Beatrice de Clerval, the mysterious woman with whom Robert is obsessed, was also a painter during the Impressionist period in the late 19th century. Her story, which includes the love of one man and cruel oppression by another, haunts the novel from beginning to end. What I found in these characters was a deeply emotional rendering of women's conflicts between love and artistic ambitions - between the selflessness required in marriage and the raising of children, and the selfishness necessary to create great art.
Another thread throughout the tale is the relationship between obsession, genius and mental health. The psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, also an amateur painter, finds himself unable to help Robert Oliver through either counseling or medication. In fact, he also becomes obsessed with Robert, finally resorting to unorthodox methodologies to bring about Robert's recovery. He solves Robert's mystery through intelligence, caring and good investigative work. In the end, I was left wondering if Robert's obsession fed his genius or if his genius made him mentally unstable. The author provides no easy answers.
Therefore, despite the odd handling of the characters' back-stories and a certain flatness to those characters, I came away feeling moved. Among the many pleasures found in The Swan Thieves are Kostova's exquisite descriptions of paintings and the window she gives the reader into the world of painting, including all of its grueling physical labors along with the exhilaration that results when inspiration and execution create great works of art. Her historical detail of the Impressionist period is beautifully done. Finally, she left me with much to ponder - rather in the way a painting can keep you looking and finding more the longer you look.
This review was originally published in February 2010, and has been updated for the November 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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