Swan Thieves (Kostova) - Book Reviews

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




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