“The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova is one of those exquisitely satisfying books that leaves you feeling pleasantly full and excited about the topics that it brought to your attention. The writing is lyrical and at times haunting - a sort of verbal representation of how I imagine Kostova’s character Robert Oliver’s paintings would have been. All the mysteries are solved, not always happily, but at least with a sense of closure – you don’t have to keep a lookout for a sequel to answer any lingering questions.
The novel circles around Robert Oliver, a gifted painter who has had a mental breakdown and attempted to attack a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is told through a combination of the “recollections” of his psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, and the people he interviews throughout the novel, and also through a series of letters written in the 19th century between a talented young painter and her husband’s uncle who is a dear friend and mentor to her. I loved the way Kostova moved fluidly between the two time periods and continuously brought them closer and closer in time as the letters progressed forward and Marlow’s research took him further back.
Kostova considers several themes in this book such as mental illness and obsession and how loved ones perceive and respond to that obsession. You also ask yourself at times if it is possible to be a dedicated artist and also lead a so-called “normal” life with a family and regular job. The book also briefly skirts the hard-core and sometimes cutthroat 19th century art world (possibly today’s art world as well?) And there is, of course, the comparison between Beatrice, Kate, and Mary, three women artists who struggle with their roles as women and artists (unfortunately not always as simply artists who happen to be women.) Not just the question of balancing a family life with the solitary act of painting, but also the prejudices of being a woman in a traditionally male profession.
One of the best aspects of this book is the fact that it has inspired me to go out and learn more about art, in particular the Impressionist movement. To me, one of the things that moves a book out of the “good” category and into the realm of being “great” is its ability to teach and/or inspire, and Kostova manages that with a grace and beauty that is rarely found in today’s novels.