Sunday, February 7, 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. Oh, I can't wait to read this book. I loved her book, "The Historian" and read it twice. I've got this one requested at the library. Thanks for the review. It sounds fascinating. Blessings!

  2. how long since you've been back?
    It's lovely to see your bright and beautiful site again, dear Margaret.

  3. Hi Marion! You are going to love The Swan Thieves. A lot about art and artists, the Impressionists, an obsession with characters long gone. Now I have to read The Historian! Love me


    Friko, thank you so much for coming back to my site! I missed you! I can just imagine the seeds you are starting and dead twigs you're picking up. It won't be that long now! Love me