Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I enjoyed this book! The Swan Thieves is a luscious page-turner right to the very end of page 561.

When we first meet the protagonist Robert Oliver, he is a realist-yet-unreal painter in a psychiatric hospital for having acted out an obsession. Larger than life, Robert dominates a stage peopled by his psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, ex-wife Kate, ex-lover Mary, and vivid memories of those from another era.

Robert's obsessive passion is a nineteenth century French impressionist named Beatrice de Clerval. Chimera? Fantasy? Real? When Kate finds a drawing in his shirt pocket, "it is the sketch of a woman's face. She glanced up with recognition, her eyes luminous, her look serious and loving. . . It was the face of a woman in love." When Marlow discovers Beatrice's portrait at the Met, he says, "She was a real woman all right. But not a living one." Robert himself had said, "When you see a painting that was painted by someone who's been dead for a long time, you know without a doubt that the person really lived."

A theme slowly emerges, one that explains everything in the end. Marlow, one of the principal narrators, unveils the story to his father who remarks, "This man is doing penance. That's what you're describing, I think. He punishes his flesh and suppresses the longing for his soul to speak about its misery. He mortifies body and mind to atone for something. It seems to me that all those paintings are a part of his penance. Perhaps he is apologizing to her?" Marlow replies, "If he's apologizing to a hallucination, he's in worse shape than I've thought up to now." His father, a minister, thoughtfully states, "Faith is what is real to us."

We see history repeat itself. The metaphor of Zeus as a swan has functioned as a musical round down through the ages. Women fall in love and unexpectedly get pregnant. Women die in someone's arms. The "effets d'hiver" recur every year, and the colors and shapes of snow and ice are a revelation to artists anew. A psychological disorder repeats itself.

The beauty of The Swan Thieves is to be read and savored by all readers; to give away more here would be a travesty.


  1. The beautiful lady picturesque
    I gazed with loving caress
    A hand held to share
    AN inti'mate care.

    Lovely prognosis critique! I will have to catch up with your learned ablility. U sound like a really nice person, I like that. I'd like to be that swan! Ha. Thank you. Take very good care. Bye.

  2. You write so beautifully Margaret! What a wonderful review! :)

  3. Hi Will~ Thank you for your poem and comment! The woman is Leda, and the Greek God Zeus fell in love with her. He would be destroyed, though, if he tried to meet her in his godly form so he metamorphosed into a swan. There are a lot of swan metaphors in this book, even including the title, The Swan Thieves. Best, Margaret

    Hi Rain~ Thank you for the compliments! It's freezing here, too, with another storm on the horizon. Guess we can play the piano and read! Best, Margaret

  4. I've always wanted to play the piano
    AS a tune to verse I'd like to know:
    To play and song a heart-felt string
    Of appreciating deepening sing.

    Love luv. U are so clever and knowledgable. We are gods on earth if we play with thought and swing oppossed to distraught and ring! I like! Best, Andrew XXX,

  5. Toe to Toe
    Hell ohhhh!

    Just to let U know I visited.

  6. I have not read The Swan Thieves but you have written an intriquing post and I do love the poetry of Yeats.