Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Published by: Little, Brown
Category: FICTION
Publish Date: 1/12/2010
Price: $26.99/$32.99
ISBN: 9780316065788
Pages: 576

From the Publisher:

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.

I had heard much about Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, The Historian, but hadn't had a chance to read it. When I heard she had a new novel being released, I jumped at the opportunity to review it.

It didn't take me long to realize I was going to love this book. Kostova's masterful descriptions were so detailed that you could easily envision what she was talking about.

In this case, her topic is an artist, Robert Oliver, that has had an apparent breakdown. Through the eyes of his psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, and the women in his life, we see a mystery unfold that attempts to explain how Oliver reached his breaking point. Through a series of letters in Robert's possession, we also see the substory of Beatrice de Clerval, an artist from the late 19th century, and how she also plays a part in Oliver's mental decline.

The descriptions I referred to before not only include the standard people and places but also the every brushstroke on a myriad of paintings that are discussed throughout. I have been a fan of Impressionist paintings for a long time, Monet in particular, and he and his fellow painters are mentioned frequently in the story. What I loved about this book was how Kostova took real museums, real works of art, then seamlessly added in the fictional elements that made me wonder if Beatrice was indeed real. I was actually saddened to find out that she wasn't but I am always pleased when a novel makes me question things and sends me into further research.

There's a particular Sisley painting towards the end that I could've sworn was real and loved the circumstances in which it came to be but I couldn't find any actual references to it anywhere! It can be a slight disappointment when reading historical fiction to find out that the parts you like best are the least real (not that this book is actually historical fiction, only certain parts). Regardless of this, The Swan Thieves is a beautifully written tribute to Impressionism and the profound effects of the artistic mind and its ability to create beauty, sometimes to the point of obsession. There were a few things that didn't wrap up as satisfactorily as I would have liked but the power of the other aspects of this story outweighed, for me, these minor things. Kostova has created rich characters, settings, and, of course, paintings that make you want to run to the closest museum and absorb all of these elements for yourself.


StephanieD said...

I liked this book very much as well. And I did what you did, investigated that Sisley painting and was crushed when I couldn't find a trace of it.

Mel (He Followed Me Home) said...

I too loved the depiction of art weaved into the story and was hoping Beatrice really did exist, too funny!

Jackie said...

Thanks guys! I'm glad I wasn't the only one, lol.

Stephanie - I was sure by its description that I'd seen it somewhere before! Must be thinking of something else.

Mel - Day trip to the AGO soon? ;-)

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