Review: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

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When the renowned painter Robert Oliver attempts a brutal attack on a painting in a gallery, he is institutionalized under the care of the psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, where he retreats into a sullen and complete silence. Marlowe, who in his fifties lives a reasonably contented life with little upheaval, finds himself inexplicably drawn to his patient’s case. The mystery of Robert Oliver’s outburst, as well as his charisma and extraordinary expertise, have an unusual effect on Marlowe. To his own surprise, he begins to take an unprecedented, even unprofessional, interest in the case.

All Marlowe knows about why Oliver brandished a knife at a painting depicting the Greek myth of Leda’s rape by a swan is that it has something to do with the enigmatic woman who fills sketch after sketch and canvas after canvas of Oliver’s work at the institution, as well as something to do with the antique bundle of French letters he keeps re-reading. The more Marlowe observes Oliver, the more he too becomes entranced with this otherworldly muse.

Thus begins a pursuit of an answer to the mystery that deepens into a pursuit of the truth itself and the setting aright of historic injustice. From the Washington gallery where it all began, Marlowe’s research takes him first to other American cities, then as far as France and Mexico. In order to unravel the secret of Oliver’s muse, he relies on what the artist’s other women – his ex-wife Kate and recent lover Mary – can tell him. The quest becomes the central force of Marlowe’s life.

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is a novel about this obsession, and others. It is also a novel about possession – the ways in which inspiration and desperation can make us act beyond our wills and radically alter the trajectories not just of our lives, but of history itself. And although it lacks a sense of urgency or tight plotting, and too often gives in to small failings like over-description and meaningless detours, in the yearning of its characters, a clear sense of their passions is evoked. And this is ordinary yearning – only Oliver, whose genius sets him apart anyway, suffers from longing that is anything other than human, daily, and universal. The power of art transforms even the most commonplace of lives.

While it does suffer from some flaws in execution, and could have been more powerful in the hands of a more creative writer, The Swan Thieves is certainly recommended as a light yet absorbing read. At nearly 600 pages it provides several days’ worth of entertainment for the reader who enjoys a mellow mix that’s neither too literary nor too lowbrow. Although written in an unremarkable pedestrian style, and ultimately far too predictable to really qualify as a mystery, there is something both engrossing and satisfying about this book. It is as though the inscrutable Robert Oliver and his muse exert their spell over the reader as much as they do over Marlowe; we cannot help but be rapt.

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.

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