The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova

I purchased The Swan Thieves when it was first released as I really enjoyed The Historian and was keen to experience more of Elizabeth Kostova's writing. It has sat on my bookshelf for quite a while. I have pulled it down twice, previously, but could not get through the first few chapters. Determined to give it a go I took it down again recently and to my surprise, enjoyed it.

Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Art
Year Published: 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown
Rating: 3/5

Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow 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.

Desperate to understand the secret that torments this genius, Marlow 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 nineteenth century to the late twentieth; from young love to last love. The Swan Thieves is a story of obsession, history's losses, and the power of art to preserve hope.

Why did it take me so many attempts to read this novel you may ask? It all came down to the way it was written. As I have stated in earlier reviews, I tend to struggle with novels that are written in letter format. This style does not appeal to me. In The Swan Thieves, the chapters switch between prose and letters. The chapters are either told from the point of view of Marlow, Kate (Oliver's ex-wife), Mary (his mistress) or they are in letter form.

This story starts with the hospitalisation of Robert Oliver, a troubled artist who paints in the style of long gone French Impressionists. Oliver is forty-something, tall, good looking, moody and aloof - all those qualities that good artists seem to have. He is admitted to a psychiatric facility after he attacks a painting in the National Gallery, called 'Leda'. His appointed psychiatrist is Andrew Marlow. Marlow is twenty years Oliver's senior, a painter who gave up his dream to hold down a steady job in medicine. He still paints in his spare time, is intelligent and cultured but a little lonely after dedicating his life to his profession.

Oliver is not a happy patient and refuses to talk to anyone at the hospital, let alone Marlow. He does however, allow Marlow to watch him paint and to read a package of old letters he has been carrying around with him. These letters contain the correspondence between two nineteenth century French Impressionist artists, BĂ©atrice de Clerval and her elderly uncle, Olivier Vignot.

Intrigued by the relevance of these letters, Marlow plays detective. First he approaches Kate, Oliver's ex-wife, and she relays everything she can about Oliver the man, his slide into mental illness and his obsession with painting nothing but a particular woman, a women in old fashioned clothing with brown curly hair. She also chronicles the breakdown of their marriage. He then tracks down Mary, Oliver's mistress. She also sheds some light on the painter and his obsession.

Spurred on by this slowly unraveling mystery, a mystery that reaches back to the 1800's and into the lives of people long dead, Marlow takes what steps he must to find out what has caused Oliver's obsession and remedy it before Oliver is too far gone to help.

I don't know a lot about painting, so I don't know how sound all the descriptions of painting, preparing to paint and studying a scene to paint, were. I just know there were a lot of them. Sure, this is a book about painters (every character paints!) but there was a LOT of painting in it. I found it enjoyable enough, but I think a lot of it could have been omitted. This book was just so long. The story and the unraveling of the mystery was so slow (and the ending abrupt) which is a shame because it really could have been told in half the amount of time.

Despite its slow pace, it was easy to read and flowed well enough to hold my interest. I was a little disappointed with the ending (as stated above, it was abrupt, after 561 pages I expected something more) but the overall story was interesting (again, just LONG!). If you love French Impressionism, stories about brooding artists and mysteries that don't make you think too hard, then you will like this book.

I am not sure this will ever be on my "re-read" list, but I am glad that I did read it this once. I will not hesitate to pick up Kostova's next novel.

Afterthought:  Also, what was with the soup in this novel!? Most of the characters seem to eat nothing but soup! Especially Marlow. The most annoying part about that was that it was just "a can of soup" or "soup". That's it. No particular flavour (I got excited when just ONCE they had tomato soup) What is that? Soup flavoured soup? Weird.
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