The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova is a book about two worlds and two centuries.

It travels seamlessly from American cities to the cost of Normandy; from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth; from young love to last love. Despite her exotic sounding name Elizabeth Kostova is an American author married to a Bulgarian scholar. She is an alumnus of Yale University and winner of the 2003 Hopwood Award for her Novel in Progress. Her debut novel The Historian was an instant best-seller and inspired a bidding war between publishing houses. While The Historian is a gothic mystery thriller somewhat based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Sawn Thieves is a different cup of tea.

Released on January 12 2010, The Swan Thieves does not fall into any neat genre. At times it’s a psychological thriller and at times a historical romance. The book appealed to me because enmeshed in the story-telling is a world of paintings. Of French Impressionism and the mores of the day. The book is narrated in multiple voices, some set in contemporary 21st century and some in late 1800s France. The painters and artists of the time were well established in the tradition of impressionism, unlike their radical antecedents. Some of the famous women painters of the time were Mary Cassat, Berthe Morisot, Lucy Bacon…and Beatrice de Clerval, our protagonist.

Andrew Marlow is a successful psychiatrist with a hospital and his own private practice.

Dedicated to his work and patients, he finds refuge in his hobby of painting. His expertise is challenged when celebrated artist Robert Oliver attacks a painting in the National Gallery of Art and is admitted to his hospital. There is a secret that has made a normal existence impossible for Robert Oliver. It has taken over his mind and the result is that he paints nothing but one woman in different styles and eras. Who is she? And why does Robert Oliver clutch a packet of old letters to his chest like treasure? Andrew Marlow knows that he has to deviate from mainstream methods to begin to understand Robert’s psyche. The women in Oliver’s life are the key to solving this mystery and a tragedy that goes back to the golden age of French Impressionism. Through a series of interviews, painstaking research and a visit to France, Andrew Marlowe uncovers exactly what led Oliver to attack a painting called Leda by Gilbert Thomas.

Though the book revolves around the personality of Robert Oliver, he is not the protagonist of this story. Indeed I think there can be no one protagonist as all the players across two centuries are equally significant, each with their own perspective of a story. What makes this book interesting is the author’s accurate use of and reference to the artists and real-life paintings of French Impressionism. The paintings are described in such vivid language that they literally make you wish to see them in person. Without overpowering the balance of the story with too much detail, they add just the perfect mix of another dimension.

In my opinion, the only glitch in the book is the lack of Robert Oliver’s portrayal as a sympathetic character. He seems almost robotic and unreal as little is told about his early life, apart from the fact that he has a French mother. His motivation, I think is what readers desire to know and is somewhat missing. However, the portrayal of the other characters is so intense and detailed that it makes up for this lacuna.

Overall, The Swan Thieves is a treat for those who like painting, historical fiction and psychological thrillers and well worth the 600 bucks spent.

Akanksha Sharma