Swan Thieves (Kostova)

The Swan Thieves 
Elizabeth Kostova, 2010
Little, Brown & Co.
564 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781607886693


Summary
Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe has a perfectly ordered life—solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient. In response, Marlowe finds himself going beyond his own legal and ethical boundaries to understand the secret that torments this genius, a journey that will lead him into the lives of the women closest to Robert Oliver and toward a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.

Ranging from American museums to the coast of Normandy, from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, from young love to last love, The Swan Thieves is a story of obsession, the losses of history, and the power of art to preserve human hope. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—December 26, 1964
Where—New London, Connecticut, USA
Rasied—Knoxville, Tennessee
Education—B.A., Yale; M.F.A. University of Michigan
Awards—Hopwod Award for Nove-in-Progress; Quill Award;
   Book Sense Award
Currently—lives in Michigan, USA


Elizabeth Johnson Kostova, an American author, is best known for her debut novel The Historian. Swan Thieves, her second novel, was released in 2010.

Kostova's interest in the Dracula legend began with the stories her father told her about the vampire when she was a child. The family lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1972, while her father was teaching at a local university; during that year, the family traveled across Europe. According to Kostova, "It was the formative experience of my childhood."She "was fascinated by [her father's Dracula stories] because they were...from history in a way, even though they weren't about real history, but I heard them in these beautiful historic places." Kostova's interest in books and libraries began early as well. Her mother, a librarian, frequently took her and her sisters to the public library — they were each allowed to check out 30 books and had a special shelf for their library books.

As a child, she listened to recordings of Balkan folk music and became interested in the tradition. As an undergraduate at Yale, she sang in and directed a Slavic chorus. In 1989, she and some friends traveled to Eastern Europe, specifically Bulgaria and Bosnia, to study local musical customs. The recordings they made will be deposited in the Library of Congress. While Kostova was in Europe, the Berlin Wall collapsed, heralding the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, events which shaped her understanding of history.

Five years later, in 1994, when Kostova was hiking in the Appalachian Mountains with her husband, she had a flashback to those storytelling moments with her father and asked herself "what if the father were spinning his Dracula tales to his entranced daughter and Dracula was listening in? What if Dracula was still alive?" She immediately scratched out seven pages of notes into her writer's notebook. Two days later, she started work on the novel. At the time she was teaching English as a second language, creative writing, and composition classes at universities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and finished the book as she was obtaining her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Michigan. In order to write the book, she did extensive research about Eastern Europe and Vlad Tepes.

Kostova finished the novel in January 2004 and sent it out to a potential literary agent in March. Two months later and within two days of sending out her manuscript to publishers, Kostova was offered a deal—she refused it. The rights to the book were then auctioned off and Little, Brown and Company bought it for US$2 million (US$30,000 is typical for a first novel from an unknown author). Publishers Weekly explained the high price as a bidding war between firms believing that they might have the next Da Vinci Code within their grasp. One vice-president and associate publisher said "Given the success of The Da Vinci Code, everybody around town knows how popular the combination of thriller and history can be and what a phenomenon it can become." Little, Brown, and Co. subsequently sold the rights in 28 countries. The book was published in the United States on 14 June 2005.

More
The novel blends the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes and his fictional equivalent Count Dracula and has been described as a combination of genres, including Gothic novel, adventure novel, detective fiction, travelogue, postmodern historical novel, epistolary epic, and historical thriller. Kostova was intent on writing a serious work of literature and saw herself as an inheritor of the Victorian style. Although based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Historian is not a horror novel, but rather an eerie tale. The novel is concerned with questions about history, its role in society, and how it is represented in books, as well as the nature of good and evil. As Kostova explains, "Dracula is a metaphor for the evil that is so hard to undo in history." The evils brought about by religious conflict are a particular theme and the novel explores the relationship between the Christian West and the Islamic East.

Heavily promoted, the book became the first debut novel to land at number one on the the New York Times bestseller list and as of 2005 was the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in US history. In general, the reviews of the novel were mixed. Several reviewers noted that she described the setting of her novel well. However, some reviewers criticized the book's structure and its lack of tonal variety. Kostova received the 2006 Book Sense award for Best Adult Fiction and the 2005 Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year. Sony bought the film rights to the novel for $1.5 million.

In May 2007, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation was created. The Foundation helps support Bulgarian creative writing, the translation of contemporary Bulgarian literature into English, and friendship between Bulgarian authors and American and British authors.

Kostova's second novel, The Swan Thieves, was released in 2010. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
The many ardent admirers of The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova's 2005 first novel, will be happy to learn that her second book offers plenty of the same pleasures. Like The Historian, the new novel ranges across a variety of richly described international locales, both antique and modern. There is once again an assortment of narratives, all of which converge to solve a central mystery. Kostova again pays punctilious attention to the details of her characters' working lives (archival scholarship in the first book, painting in the second). And although the two novels' subjects are worlds apart, there is a shared romantic premise, in which the past is forever imposing itself onto the present, the dead onto the living.
Donna Rifkind - Washington Post


The Swan Thieves revisits certain themes and strategies of [Elizabeth Kostov's 2005 debut novel] 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
Publishers Weekly


A painting has been attacked at the National Gallery of Art, and the assailant—Robert Oliver, a painter of notoriety in his own right—isn't speaking. It is left to psychiatrist Andrew Marlow—a hobbyist painter himself—to unravel the puzzle of Robert's manic behavior. With a mysterious packet of letters and the testimony of Robert's ex-wife and ex-girlfriend as guides, Marlow dives into a mystery of romance and impressionist art dating back to late 19th-century France. Love and obsession are the primary themes of Kostova's long-awaited second novel (after The Historian), which stretches across three centuries and renders just the right amount of drama. The luxurious artistic detail and richly drawn characters will pull in readers, who will be hard-pressed to stop turning pages. Verdict: Fans of Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time, both explorations of love across time and space, and readers of Tracy Chevalier and Audrey Niffenegger will enjoy Kostova's strong sophomore effort, which is sure to be a best seller and a suitable choice for book clubs. Highly recommended. —Leigh Wright, Bridgewater, NJ
Library Journal


Kostova follows up her blockbuster debut about the undead (The Historian, 2005) with a romance about a contemporary painter's obsession with an undiscovered 19th-century Impressionist. After he attempts to slash the painting Leda at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., respected artist Robert Oliver is committed to a mental hospital under the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow (think Heart of Darkness). A painter himself, Marlow is fascinated by his patient, who refuses to speak and paints the same dark-haired woman over and over. "When I asked him whether he was sketching from imagination or drawing a real person," Marlow remembers, "he ignored me more pointedly than ever." Then Robert lends Marlow a package of letters written in the late 1870s by aspiring painter Beatrice de Clerval Vignot to her husband's uncle Olivier Vignot, an established artist at the Paris Salon. Knowing he is stretching professional boundaries, Marlow goes to North Carolina to visit Robert's charming, pragmatic ex-wife and tracks down the spirited painter Mary Bertison, with whom Robert later lived in D.C. Both women loved the artist and felt they lost him to the woman in the painting. Marlow himself falls increasingly under Beatrice's spell as he reads letters tracing her growing feelings for Uncle Olivier. The psychiatrist, a 52-year-old bachelor, is also drawn to Mary despite the questionable professional ethics of dating a patient's ex-girlfriend. With Robert tucked away painting his Beatrice in silence, Marlow travels to Mexico with Mary, then alone to Paris to trace the life of the real Beatrice and track down her secret paintings of swans; short chapters set in 1879 reveal what happened to her and her work. Kostova's theme is creative obsession and what everyday boundaries can be broken in its name; the novel seems to favor the most romantic answer. Neither Robert's decisions nor Marlow's make a lot of sense, but lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. At the beginning of Chapter 2, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow confesses that the story he is going to tell is “not only private but subject to my imagination as much as to the facts.” In what ways does this prove to be true, in the course of the book? How does Marlow’s imagination affect the telling of his
own story?

2. Each of the artists in the book—Robert, Marlow, Mary, Kate, Beatrice, and Olivieris faced with choices between art and personal life. What are some of these dilemmas, and how does each character resolve or at least experience them?

3. In Chapter 64, at their painting conference in Maine, Mary says to Robert, “‘I have the feeling that if I knew why you were still painting the same thing after so many years, then I would know you. I would know who you are.” Why does Robert paint Beatrice for years and how does his obsession with her shape his artwork? What other obsessions appear in the course of the book, in Robert and in other characters?

4. Landscapes play an important role in The Swan Thieves, both in life and on canvas. What are the major landscapes of the book, and what effect do they have on the characters?

5. In Chapter 95, just before Marlow flies to Paris to learn more about Beatrice de Clerval, Mary tells him, “‘Please just let her die properly, the poor woman.’” What does she mean by this? Why is it important to her?

6. The Swan Thieves is partly a study of love that bridges gaps across time and age—passion, mentoring, parenting. Which characters have these relationships? What do the old, or older, characters have to offer the younger ones? What do the younger ones offer their elders?

7. At many points in the story, artists paint or sketch one another. What are these occasions and how is each significant to the story?

8. In Etretat, as she considers her relationship with Olivier, Beatrice realizes that whatever happens between them “she must effect herself and live with later.” Is this true of other characters’ experiences? In what senses?

9. The myth of Leda and the Swan surfaces repeatedly in the narrative. Where do we encounter it and what is its significance in each of the main characters’ lives? What other swans make an appearance in the book?

10. Kate says of her second meeting with Robert Oliver, “His apparent unawareness of himself was mesmerizing.” What else mesmerizes other people about Robert? Why do some of the other characters find him compelling?

11. On leaving the National Gallery at the end of Chapter 7, Marlow notes “that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum—relief at being returned to the familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world’s lack of mystery.” What museums appear in the novel? Is Marlow’s craving for mystery ultimately satisfied by museums or by“the world,” and in what ways?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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