Title: The Swan Thieves
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
No. of Pages: 565
First Released: February 12, 2010
Synopsis (From Amazon): “Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.
Kostova’s masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from the late 19th century to the late 20th, from young love to last love. THE SWAN THIEVES is a story of obsession, history’s losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope.”
Comments and Critique: As a huge fan of Ms. Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, I jumped at the opportunity to receive an ARC of her latest novel, The Swan Thieves, although I was concerned that it would not live up to the beauty and thrill of her first novel. In addition, the idea of art and painting as the main backdrop of the story was questionable. Would a mass audience be able to relate to the fine art mentioned throughout the novel? Can art be just as exciting as vampires?
The Swan Thieves definitely lives up to the anticipation. The mystery surrounding Oliver’s actions is enough to maintain a reader’s interest, as one follows Marlow’s journey to discover Oliver’s secrets. Ms. Kostova describes the world of art and painting in enough detail that even the most art-ignorant reader can follow the story as well as the details. Her descriptions of Oliver’s past loves are so realistic that one feels a bit like a voyeur and is physically present as the action occurs.
Ms. Kostova’s strengths lie in her ability to piece together words to form a picture. She is remarkable at doing so in such a way that forces the reader to savor each sentence, each word slowly. This may seem tedious but in reality is one of the most amazing feats of the book. In addition, Ms. Kostova makes a reader work. She never directly states the answers to the mysteries but provides the reader with enough clues for a reader to be able to solve them himself. Again, this is not a detraction but rather a definite attraction.
As mentioned above, Ms. Kostova’s choices in subject matter are very brave. Mental illness is typically depressing, while art, more specifically painting in oils, is not a subject that would necessarily appeal to the masses. Her research, though, is what helps the reader overcome these possible deficiencies. In fact, her research is so thorough that one has no difficulties picturing just what she describes.
However, the book is not just about art but rather about relationships. Oliver’s relationships with former loves and with Marlow, as well as Marlow’s relationships with everyone he encounters on his search for the truth, highlight the bonds that form, morph and fade throughout life. Ms. Kostova shows how dangerous obsession can truly be to a person, to his or her psyche, and how it can impact generations to come. In Ms. Kostova’s world, there truly is a fine line between love and obsession, one that people can easily cross without even knowing it.
As with all good things, there are a few items of caution to address. This book, as marvelous as it is, may not be for everyone. There is a distinct lack of traditional action and adventure as well as many pages of descriptions of painting and artwork. The mystery is subtle and slow-paced compared to her first novel. This means that some people will consider The Swan Thieves to be boring and not worth the effort, for effort it does require. A reader must be actively engaged in the book to catch all the clues Ms. Kostova provides.
The Swan Thieves requires deliberate reading. Ms. Kostova’s language and syntax is absolutely breathtaking and deserves the time needed to appreciate her gift with words. The entire book is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, Henry James, or other classic novelists where the danger is not life-threatening but the descriptions and characters compel a reader to continue with a novel. Again, this is a very good thing.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed The Swan Thieves. Robert Olivier’s greater-than-life personality leaps off the pages, while Andrew Marlow’s desire to help his client propels the story and deepens the mystery even further. The relationships mentioned add needed tension and a layer of complexity while the art world takes on a life of its own. Added together, this is one unforgettable book, brought together by the skill of Ms. Kostova’s writing.
Thank you to Hachette Books for the ARC sent as part of the 2009 Book Blogger Appreciation Week!
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