Elizabeth Kostova begins her new novel The Swan Thieves with an arresting scene of an elderly artist in 1895 France, painting a woman in traveling clothes walking down a deserted village lane. The artist cannot see her face, but that is all right: “He needs her as she is, needs her moving away from him into the snowy tunnel of his canvas…She is a real woman and now she is a painting.”
This scene resumes 560 pages later as Kostova finally reveals the secrets of her long saga of love, art and obsession. Whether you like what lies between rather depends on how much you liked Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, with its similar layered narratives, deliberate pacing and lovely, atmospheric writing. If you found that first historical thriller slow going, good luck with The Swan Thieves, which only fitfully comes to life, its mysteries not nearly as dark nor enthralling as those of the first book. Still, Kostova tries to make them so.
Why did well-known artist Robert Oliver attack a French Impressionist painting at the National Gallery? Why won’t he talk, even to his psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow? Why does he paint over and over the face and figure of the same 19th-century woman? Why did two seemingly sensible contemporary women — Kate and Mary — fall in love with him? And why is Marlow venturing into the heart of Oliver’s darkness to the point of obsession, tracking down Kate and Mary, reading century-old French love letters, looking into the lives and works of some lesser-known Impressionist painters?
Discerning readers will figure it all out before Marlow while enjoying the picturesque visits to the North Carolina mountains, the coast of Maine, villages in Mexico and France, the journey back in time and place. It’s like a leisurely visit to a museum, where you pause to admire the beauty of some of the works but are disappointed not to be stunned by genius.
The cover art, from an 1832 oil on canvas by Francois-Eduard Picot, is gorgeous, proving again that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, or, as in this case, thousands. I so wanted to love The Swan Thieves. I merely liked it.
(Open Book: I bought my copy of The Swan Thieves.)