Monday, March 29, 2010
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Protagonist: Andrew Marlow
Setting: Washington, D.C.
While the story revolves around painter Robert Oliver, his voice is mute during much of the book, and the story is told through three narrators -- principally, Marlow, his psychiatrist; Kate, his ex-wife; and Mary, his former girlfriend. Marlow is a detective of sorts: Oliver has tried to destroy a painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery. Shortly after, he was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where, after a few words, he doesn't speak to Marlow again. In trying to find out why Oliver attacked the painting, Marlow learns Oliver is obsessed with a female painter from the Impressionism era -- Beatrice de Clerval (we learn more about Beatrice in old letters written between her and a relative, interspersed between the narratives).
Kostova, who wrote the bestseller The Historian, gives us a more subtle, and unfortunately less interesting, story. For hundreds of pages, we get the story of Kate and Robert (how they met, how they married, how the marriage dissolved). Then we get hundreds of pages about Mary and Robert and their romance. While the author is establishing Robert's pattern of obsession, we unfortunately get very little of the mystery. The real story is suspended until the last hundred pages.
While The Historian captivated me, The Swan Thieves suffers from the curse of the second book -- it just doesn't live up to its promise.