The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
I’ve been looking forward to “The Swan Thieves” for months and months and months, ever since I heard that Elizabeth Kostova had a new book coming out. I adored “The Historian,” her earlier book. I’ve read it multiple times (ah, for the days when my TBR stack was manageable and I could reread books…) and listened to the audio with my husband on a car trip. It has been four and a half years since “The Historian” was released so when I heard rumors of a new book, I started counting down the days before I even knew what the book would be about.
In “The Historian,” everything revolves around scholars and scholarship, in “The Swan Thieves” the focus is art and everyone is an artist. When renowned artist Robert Oliver unexpectedly charges a painting in the National Gallery of Art with his knife drawn, attempting to slash the artwork, he is sent to psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe for treatment. Marlowe himself is a talented painter, one who could have made a living from his art – or so he tells us. The hope is that Marlowe’s understanding of art and artists will help him treat the obviously mentally ill Oliver. The only problem is that Oliver refuses to talk to him, although he does grant Marlowe permission to speak to anyone about him and his condition, and even allows Marlowe access to a stack of perplexing French letters from the late 19th century.
As Marlowe begins trying to understand Robert’s motivation for the attack on the painting, he becomes almost obsessed with Oliver’s life himself. His exploration of Robert’s life and actions is told in the ‘present’ (really the whole thing is taking place in the past, but I’m going to use ‘present’ here to mean the time in which Robert Oliver is institutionalized and Andrew Marlowe is searching for answers) by Marlowe and in Robert’s past by first his ex-wife, then his girlfriend. Also mixed into the narrative are the letters, which turn out to be from artists Beatrice de Clerval to her husband’s uncle, artist Olivier Vignot.
This is a much quieter book than “The Historian.” There is no race against time and Dracula to find a father, wife, or professor. In fact, I was never quite sure what Marlowe was really searching for, or exactly how Beatrice de Clerval’s story was going to factor in. And yet, I could completely tell that I was reading something by Elizabeth Kostova, regardless of how different the story was. Her style has remained remarkably consistent from “The Historian” to “The Swan Thieves.” I read “The Swan Thieves” slowly, absorbing Kostova’s writing and processing Marlowe’s obsession. This is a book I just wanted to wrap myself inside and revel in.
I think that Hachette is doing the right thing by releasing “The Swan Thieves” in the winter, it is a fantastic read for long, lazy winter nights curled up by a fire or under a blanket. It doesn’t have the spook-factor or the immediacy of “The Historian,” but it is an absolutely lovely read, one to take your time with and savor.
“The Swan Thieves” will be released January 12, 2010.
Thank you to Miriam at Hachette for sending me this book to review!