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The Swan Thieves: A Novel Hardcover – January 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
[Signature]Reviewed by Katharine WeberElizabeth Kostova made a dramatic debut in 2005 with her megabestselling The Historian. The first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list at #1, The Historian has been published in 44 languages, has more than 1.5 million copies in print, and there's a Sony film in the works. A hefty, quirky, historical vampire thriller that took 10 years to write and for which a reported $2 million advance was paid, The Historian has managed through sheer bulk and majestic grandeur to confer upon itself the literary weight of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, even as it offers up some of the easy delights and generic writing skimps that put it on the Da Vinci Code shelf.The Swan Thieves revisits certain themes and strategies of The Historian, chief among them an academic hero who is drawn into a quest for knowledge about the central mystery, only to develop an obsession that becomes the driving force of the plot. Each chapter marks a point of view shift from the previous one, with the narrative shared among a variety of characters telling the story in a variety of ways. The events range from the present moment back to the 19th century of the painters Beatrice de Clerval and her uncle Olivier Vignot, whose intertwined lives, letters, and paintings are at the heart of the story.This time out, Kostova's central character, Andrew Marlow, has a license to ask prying questions as he unravels the secrets and pursues the truth, because he is a psychiatrist. (Before Freud, genre quest novels depended on sleuths like Sherlock Holmes to play this role.) Even though Marlow comes across as a sensible, trained therapist, after only the briefest of encounters with his newly hospitalized patient, the renowned painter Robert Oliver, Marlow develops an obsessive desire to solve the mystery of why Oliver attempted to slash a painting in the National Gallery. Marlow is himself a painter, and the Oliver case has been given to him because of his knowledge of art. But Oliver is uncooperative and mute, though he conveniently gives Marlow permission to talk to anyone in his life before falling silent. Oliver's inexplicable behavior, which includes poring over a stolen cache of old letters written in French, triggers what I can only call a rampant countertransference response in Marlow, whose overwhelming obsession becomes a strange and frequently far-fetched journey of discovery as he persists to the point of trespass and invasion. Is this the crossing of the ultimate border promised by the ARC's jacket copy, the enactment of the fantasy of one's therapist developing an obsessive fascination that blots out all other reality?Less urgent in its events than The Historian, The Swan Thieves makes clear that Kostova's abiding subject is obsession. Legions of fans of the first book have been waiting impatiently, or perhaps even obsessively, for this novel. The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.Katharine Weber's fifth novel, True Confections, will be published by Shaye Areheart Books in January.
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From the Back Cover
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.
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But way too often I felt like this story was treading water. I would have to remind myself what mystery readers were trying to solve.
The last 70 pages seemed to finally focus on the story again.
Psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Marlow gets a referral from Dr. John García, a colleague who he went to school with, about a patient by the name of Robert Oliver. Mr. Oliver pulled a knife in the nineteenth century collection at the National Gallery. The patient has refused to talk and Dr. García thinks if anyone can make him talk it would be him. “Marlow, you could get a stone to talk.”<br/><br/>Oliver maintains his silence but reveals that “I did it for her.” The painting that was attacked was by Leda by Gilbert Thomas. It’s based on the mythology that Zeus would visit Leda as a swan and sired two sets of twins with her—one of which was Helen of Troy.
Driven first by professional curiosity, and then by a determination that disrupts his ordered, careful world, Marlow embarks on an unconventional pursuit of the answers his patient won’t provide. He starts with his ex wife, Kate and their two children, Ingrid and Oscar. Kate reveals that at first Robert was normal but he abandoned her for another woman, Mary R. Bertison.
That leads him to Mary—who reveals that Oliver had letters that he read all the time—which Marlow translates from French. They date to 1879 and relate the life of Béatrice de Clerval. Soon Oliver is consumed by the dead woman and his relationship with Mary ends.
As these women paint a portrait of love, betrayal, and artistic obsession, Marlow is pulled deeper into the mind of the troubled genius. Carefully braiding the strands of a life undone, Marlow embarks in the pursuit of Béatrice de Clerval’s life, her secret passions, and heartbreaking treachery. The author brings France of the late 1800’s blazingly alive when the letters become part of the prose.
Finally by unlocking the mystery of Béatrice de Clerval’s life, Marlow cures, Oliver and finds happiness for himself in the arms of Mary R. Bertison.
The Swan thieves takes us across centuries, from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from young love, to last love, and to a new love.
The book is an easy read, but it was featured as a psychological thriller. Unfortunately it deals with love secrets and betrayals and is a romance book. I was disappointed about that.
The Swan Thieves
Having finished The Swan Thieves, I have more questions than Kostova’s work can answer. Her novel was most enjoyable--until the end. The end just mad me mad or frustrated. Ultimately, unfortunately, the end spoiled the experience for me and has made me question Kostova’s intent in other aspects of the novel.
I loved her description of art. I loved that the focus of the novel was art and that it was peopled by artists. Her characters were unique, yet believable. I felt for Robert Oliver as his world unraveled and his sanity slipped. My heart ached for Kate as the man she loved became unreachable. As a stranger he had put her to bed with no ulterior motive; yet as a husband, he was unable to assist her in moving. His obsession with a long deceased woman destroyed a marriage, a family, a love affair, and his job. Mental illness is so destructive and yet we understand so little.
I was thrilled when Andrew and Mary fell in love. I liked both those characters and hoped the best for them. I believe that is a sign of good writing, by the way, that the reader cares what happens to the characters. I felt the same for Beatrice and her love triangle. It seemed that she cared deeply for both men in her life and didn’t want to hurt either. Kostova’ description of Beatrice and Olivier’s letters provided a believable development of their relationship from innocent admiration to lovers. The mystery of Beatrice’s exit from the art world also provided a captivating plot line.
But I have questions. Some of them may seem insignificant, but with the less than satisfying conclusion, those unanswered questions are even more perplexing. First, what was the significance of all the references to old things? “They [Andrew’s parents] prevented a house nearly as old as ours (1691—ours was 1686) from being torn down for a supermarket lot.” “Her [Zoe’s] kitchen dates from just after the Revolutionary War.” “One of our [Mary’s] school buildings was a house that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.” Mary’s workshop assignment was to paint an “antique doll.” “Our [Andrew’s] town is the pride of the local historic preservationists: our churches and inn and oldest houses are original—virgin timber, spared by the ties of family.” Obviously, we must include the Impressionists plot line as well. These are merely a few of the references. I was sure that their inclusion would amplify Kostova’s theme. However, I can’t make it add up.
I wonder, too, about the parallels. Beatrice and Olivier exchanged letters, as did Robert and Mary. We are not given intimate details about Robert’ and Mary’s, but are we to assume that their relationship grew in a similar way? And if so, why does Robert leave Mary? A parallel that I am unsure if I am reading too much into is Robert’s “masterpiece” that so many found shocking. His “muse” is holding a woman who has died suddenly and violently. The younger woman’s expression shows horror. Was this Robert’s rendition of Kate’s mother’s death?
“But if there was a single ending for Robert and me, it happened the day my mother died…I knelt holding her by the arms while our hearts failed us, and it was terrible, and terrible to watch…What I saw in his face finished our marriage just as my mother’s life vanished. His eyes were blank. He was not seeing us, me holding her lifeless body in my arms. He was not thinking how he could comfort me in those first moments, or how he could honor her death.”
Were his eyes blank because he was envisioning the canvas? Studying how to render human grief? Or did this “masterpiece” refer to Olivier’s wife’s death? “She [Helene, Olivier’s wife] was already growing cold. She lay in my arms with the gush of blood from her wound drying on her hair and clothing. Her face showed only surprise, although her eyes had closed by themselves.” Perhaps, Kostova meant for both to parallel anguish when loved one’s die no matter the era or circumstance. Again, I am unsure.
The final parallel that baffles me is the Olivier/Oliver aspect. Obviously, Olivier Vignot existed (or as I would say to my students: a real live dead person) and she needed to be historically accurate. But she didn’t need to give Robert the last name of Oliver. Both loved Beatrice; both are artists. Was Robert meant to be the reincarnation of Olivier, the American version? Is that from where his obsession sprung? Am I making too much of this? Am I over-thinking?
Then there’s the ending. Marlow spends an extraordinary amount of time and money to “understand” his silent patient. He travels the country to interview relatives, associates, and lovers. He then travels to Mexico and France to understand the subject of his patient’s obsession. What was Robert’s diagnosis? To me, it was always (perhaps, conveniently) unclear:
As the psychiatrist told Kate: “’But I believe Robert is probably experiencing—‘”
‘And then he told me the name of an illness, one I knew only vaguely and associated with nameless things, things that had nothing to do with me, things that people were given electric shock therapy for…’
‘Are you telling me that my husband is mentally ill?’”
Marlow is also vague. However, we know that Robert is ill. His illness makes him unable to stop painting at times, to meet his teaching obligations, to sleep for nights, to be a husband, father, lover. He was taking lithium at one point and was medicated at Marlow’s hospital. As mentioned, Marlow goes to extremes “to understand” him. On Andrew’s return from France, he visits Robert in his room and gives him a letter:
“It is from Beatrice to Olivier, and it proves that Thomas blackmailed her and claimed one of her greatest works as his own. You guessed that, too, I think.
And are you in your right mind now?” He was serious, a man taking an oath. “I have been for quite a while. I believe so.”
Are you stinkin’ kidding me! All that time! The spiral downward. The obsession. And all it took was a letter and a question? It was at that point that the story lost credibility for me. And what a shame. It had been an engaging novel. It seems that Kostova was out of her expertise writing a novel about mental illness and psychiatry. Perhaps, it was me. Maybe, I was unable to connect the dots on the Rorschach test.