There was a lot of fuss over Elizabeth Kostova’s earlier book, The Historian, and I tried to read it but could not quite cozy up to the Dracula theme, the violence, the portentousness. The Swan Thieves, though, was a much more appealing subject for me. Andrew Marlow, the protagonist, is a middle-aged psychiatrist who paints quite seriously as a hobby. He is called upon to treat an artist named Robert Oliver who has attempted to slash an Impressionist painting at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. But Oliver refuses to be treated — in fact, he refuses to talk at all. So Marlow has to launch an informal investigation to figure out what’s wrong with Oliver, and how he can be helped. In the course of his research into the patient, of course, the doctor’s character is laid bare as well. Art, madness, medical mystery; what’s not to like?
Kostova has Marlow narrating the framework of the story. It’s he who visits the National Gallery to visit the painting Oliver slashed; it’s he who drives to North Carolina to visit Oliver’s divorced wife; it’s he who travels to Mexico and to Paris, following leads. But there are other narrative voices as well: both the painter’s divorced wife Kate and his recent girlfriend Mary write long letters to Marlow, detailing their relationships with Oliver. In addition, there’s a packet of letters, in French, dating from the late 1870s, that Oliver treasures. And finally, there’s some present-tense narrative dating from that era.
I was perfectly happy to go along with the whole thing: characters, structure, subject. Kostova’s a good writer, the research was solid, the characters appealing, the settings convincing. It’s a leisurely tale, but I was completely absorbed and the narrative appeared to be going somewhere interesting… until it finally, at the end, it didn’t.
I’m still a little bit baffled. Without giving the plot away, I can tell you that Robert Oliver is obsessed by an obsession with a nineteenth-century Frenchwoman, to the extent that he ruins his real-life relationships. This woman also dominates his art. But why? I’m still scratching my head. I think if you spend 500+ pages with a mentally ill main character and his doctor, you want a diagnosis and a prognosis. What’s the nature of Robert Oliver’s malady and will he recover? Even more, you want the source of his obsession to be more than a set of features and a resumé. Béatrice de Clerval is beautiful, dark-haired, talented, plucky, loyal, faithful — and she never comes to life. And finally, you want some rationale. Why was it that Robert Oliver was singled out for these visions, or visitations? I was inventing all kinds of scenarios, confident that Kostova would tie the tale up neatly, but she doesn’t, which for me cast a veil of dissatisfaction over the whole book.