I had read Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" a couple of years ago and really liked it. I like "The Swan Thieves" even better. I found it to be more accessible than "The Historian" (less difficult to follow). At 561 pages in the hardcover edition, it may seem a bit daunting at first, but I hungrily devoured it in two days. Thank you, Little Brown and Company, for publishing a book in a bit larger print for us older readers. (And this was not a large-print edition.)
I am probably one of the few readers who did not already know or figure out right away that "The Swan Thieves" was, in addition to the book's title, the title of a painting. Duh! But once I did, I soon figured out what it was the swan thieves stole. I discovered it soon enough to be smug about it but not so soon that it spoiled the read for me.
Washington DC psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe is called in to treat a patient who has attempted to slash a painting at the National Gallery of Art. The work of art Robert Oliver tried to destroy with a knife is '"Leda (Leda vaincue par le Cygne)", painted by Frenchman Gilbert Thomas in 1879. "Leda" is Gilbert's interpretation of the famous myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. Perhaps it was my concentration on the swan in "Leda" that made me fail to ponder the title "The Swan Thieves."
Marlowe feels he must discover why Oliver felt such rage against the painting. There is one huge problem, however. Oliver, though stabilized and on meds, refuses to talk. At all. Feeling it is imperative for Oliver's treatment, Marlowe sets out to interview the people in his life, beginning with Kate Oliver, Robert's ex-wife. He also meets Mary, a former lover of Robert's, and travels to Mexico and Paris to talk with art collectors.
Marlowe also must discover why Oliver is in possession of original letters from French painter Beatrice de Clerval to her husband's uncle, Olivier Vignot, also a renowned painter. These letters are interspersed throughout the book, giving us a glimpse of Parisian life at the end of the 19th Century and the burgeoning Impressionist movement.
There is also a great deal of information on Marlowe, both past and present. One may wonder why Kostova has devoted so much time both to Marlowe's personal life and to the letters, but all questions are eventually answered and these loose ends will be tied up, very neatly and satisfactorily, by the end of the book.
Kostova has done a wonderful job of combining past and present. Her descriptions of paintings are exquisite, and her characters are full-dimensional and believable, be they 21st Century wife and mother Kate Oliver or Fin de Siecle Parisian lady Beatrice de Clerval. Kostova is also excellent in portraying her male characters, including tortured artist Robert Oliver. Kudos to her for making Marlowe the protagonist. Instead of a character who might have been just a clinical, impartial observer, Marlowe is engaged and engaging as he strives to help Robert and, in doing so, finds love.