Apparently, all of the books that I read came out FOREVER ago. Probably because I typically only buy them second hand (unless it’s Harry Potter obvi). Hopefully you don’t mind severely outdated reviews! I’ve just never really been one to follow new releases, and also, I’m a bit cheap! Today I’m discussing The Swan Thieves, never mind that it came out nearly a decade ago…
If you’ve been following my previous reviews, you’ll know that historical fiction is my sweet spot and this novel does not disappoint. This is Elizabeth Kostova’s second narrative and boy is it long winded! A little editing would have done this novel wonders, but that being said, I still thoroughly enjoyed the story.
I absolutely love when an author presents so many points of view, endless amounts of plot turns, and an abundance of loose ends, but brilliantly wraps them together at the end. I’ve discussed this before, but the level of satisfaction and even awe that this provides is one of the reasons I keep coming back to historical fiction. I so admire the artistic talent it requires to execute this writing style and Kostova makes it look effortless.
We are first introduced to Dr. Andrew Marlow, psychiatrist and novice painter, as he considers taking on a new patient. Robert Oliver, renowned American painter, has just been arrested and institutionalized for seemingly trying to stab a canvas in the National Gallery. The painting in peril is Leda, a representation of the moment the mythical god, Zeus, embodies a swan in order to covertly rape the Queen of Sparta. Interestingly, the only possession on Oliver’s person at the time of his arrest is a small collection of love letters from the 19th Century between Olivier Vignot and Beatrice de Clerval, two (fictional) up and coming Impressionist painters from the 1800s.
Robert proves a difficult patient for Marlow as he refuses to speak and spends his days painting the same mysterious, dark haired woman over and over again. Who is this woman? Is she the key to Robert’s madness? Marlow is consumed with finding the answers. Conveniently, of the few sentences Robert utters to Marlow prior to going mute, he gives his permission to talk to anyone he (Marlow) wants to regarding Robert’s past and personality, “even Mary”, he says. Marlow takes him at his word and seeks out his past lovers, traces his footsteps across the country and beyond, and breaches his own ethical boundaries all in a quest to “cure” the artistic genius.
The letters are the bridge to the past that carry us along the plot journey. In fact, they may just be the most intriguing part of the book. Eventually the path of the letters crosses with Robert’s trajectory and we begin to see the answers unfold. This does not occur until roughly the last 20% of the 600-page tome and admittedly I skimmed some incredibly tedious paragraphs that had an unnecessary amount of detail. But when we start to put the pieces together, we learn how obsession, romance, and the power of art brought a man to his breaking point – and we don’t blame him for it.