Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fiction: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I’ll say it here and now: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian left me cold. I said as much in these very pages back in 2005. I mention this because I had little reason to want to read Kostova’s new novel, The Swan Thieves (Little, Brown & Company), except one: I remembered what I did like about The Historian: Kostova’s writing. The woman knows how to make beautiful sentences.

Still, I was afraid The Swan Thieves would turn out to be a massive disappointment, just as, for example, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was. That, too, I reviewed in these pages -- and not kindly.

When I got my hands on The Swan Thieves, then, I felt the urge to dive in, but I held back. I read on tiptoe. And then it overcame me. I am happy to report that this novel is far superior to The Historian in its scope, its character development, its sheer way with words and images. Kostova’s writing here sings. It’s as if she decided that each scene had to be describable in one adjective -- awkward, lovely, frightening, startling, heart-breaking... something -- then resolved not to use that word in any way, to help it along. Stunning.

The Swan Thieves is about painting and artists, their obsession with their subjects and the way they capture them on canvas. It’s about light and color and image and the lasting effect they can have, long after the artist is dead.

This luscious, tantalizing book reveals the mind of one painter, a man who -- for reasons of his own -- attacks a painting in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. Why he does it is the driving force of The Swan Thieves -- but it’s the characters that bring the novel to life. There’s the artist, Robert Oliver, who has been placed in an institution. Unwilling (or unable?) to talk, to interact in even the most basic way, he is assigned a psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow. Marlow is an artist, too -- of the mind. He knows how to get inside a psyche the way a painter knows how to get inside the images he envisions on a canvas. When Oliver won’t open up even to him, Marlow is forced to dig; he must paint his own picture of Oliver using his ex-wife Kate and his lover, Mary.

As in Kate Christensen’s wonderful novel The Great Man -- also about an artist -- the actual subject of the book, Oliver, doesn’t appear in the present all that much. Rather, we learn about him through other people. The tension comes from knowing their admittedly biased recollections alternately poke holes in and illuminate others’. In The Swan Thieves, this convention works brilliantly. Poetically, it transforms Oliver from painter to painting, something observed with little or no backstory. It’s as if he’s been hung in a museum, himself, a mute slave to how others see him.

Oliver’s story is made all the more interesting by a collection of letters he owns -- and which Marlow purloins. They’re a series of letters written during the 19th century between two French artists, one of whom, Beatrice, might have become one of the great Impressionists, had she kept painting. At first, the letters seem to have been included only as a distraction or a secondary layer. As it turns out, why Beatrice didn’t fulfill her apparent destiny is central to the mystery of The Swan Thieves: the answer unlocks both Robert Oliver's motives and his obsession, at the same time.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, loved this book. I finished it several days ago and can't get it out of my mind. The first time through, I listened to it, now I am going to read it. This is a book to keep on your shelf, not one to read and then give away.
I wholeheartedly agree with the review above about the writing. It's almost as if Kostova painted the book with words.

Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 10:42:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This book rocked my world. I listened to the audiobook and then listened to 12 of the 17 CDs again! I plan to skim through the printed version soon. Buchsbaum review was the best one I've read of The Swan Thieves.

Friday, October 7, 2011 at 4:06:00 PM PDT  

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