The Swan Thieves is Elizabeth Kostova’s second novel, following The Historian (which I have read three times). Before anything else, I’m vastly impressed by Kostova’s ability to balance the sheer volume of research and source material needed to tell this story. (Either book could easily double as a doorstop, flower press, or step stool.) I can’t really talk about Swan Thieves without a nod to The Historian, which told the story of Dracula through layers of narration, via letters spanning centuries, as well as through an unnamed (?) first person narrator. (It’s far more complex and interesting that it sounds, trust me.)
Kostova takes the same multi-layered approach in Swan Thieves. The story is relayed to the reader by multiple narrators, all funneled through middle aged psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow. Dr. Marlow has undertaken the treatment of a well known painter, Robert Oliver, who inexplicably snapped and attacked a painting at The National Gallery of Art. Once institutionalized, Oliver paints the same woman over and over, in various period garb, in a multitude of settings. In his search for the root of his patient’s psychosis, and the identity of his mysterious subject, Marlow seeks out Oliver’s former wife and lover, each of whom shares her story about life with Oliver.
This present day story is told alongside that of Béatrice de Clerval, a (fictional) late 19th century French painter and contemporary of Monet, and her relationship with her husband’s uncle, also a painter. Each character in the story is an artist (of varying ability – Marlow dabbles, where Oliver is a master). Also featured is the (really very disturbing) myth of Leta and the eponymous Swan.
Although I don’t believe Swan Thieves quite lives up to The Historian, it could be that I am prejudiced by the subject matter – vampires are much more interesting to me than paintings. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, but it’s too long (as was The Historian), and the ending, complete with a heavily foreshadowed Snidely Whiplash-esqe villain, was a bit too quick and neat for me. It reminded me a great deal of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, although that’s due to the stylistic layering of stories and sources, not the writing style.
It was a good read, but unlike The Historian, not a book that I’m likely to pick up again.