The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves  (576 pages) is set in Washington DC in the late 1990s with flashbacks to Normandy, France, one hundred years earlier. Dr. Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist in a residential facility who is a keen art lover and amateur painter. He is requested by a colleague to admit into his care a troubled young man, Robert Oliver.
Oliver is an artist of some renown but he appears to have suffered a mental breakdown which culminates in his attempt to slash a painting in the National Gallery.

The story is narrated by Marlow and by Oliver’s ex-wife, Kate, but the narrative is interspersed with letters written in the late 19th century by Beatrice de Clerval. Beatrice is a French artist whose correspondence with her husband’s uncle betrays a blossoming love affair.

Oliver had this bundle of letters in his possession, and it becomes clear that they are central to his current predicament.

As the novel progresses, we see Marlow become more and more consumed with discovering the reasons for Oliver’s attack on the work of art. Oliver has assumed a code of silence but we learn of his progressive illness from his ex-wife, Kate, and his ex-girlfriend, Mary.

At the core of Oliver’s illness is his obsession with a beautiful dark-haired lady – his muse – who features in practically all of the paintings he worked on in the period leading up to and during his confinement. Marlowe believes that if he can identify this lady, he will be one step further on in curing his patient.

It is difficult to place The Swan Thieves in any one genre. It is part drama, part historical fiction, part mystery. There are many references to paintings and artists, and it is well researched with the various storylines knitting together quite nicely, although the conclusion is a little too pat.

At almost six hundred pages, The Swan Thieves is a long read and may not always keep the reader gripped, but the storyline is both interesting and original.
The characters are very well portrayed, and it is easy to identify with the long-suffering wife, the frustrated girlfriend, the determination of the psychiatrist to get to the root of his patient’s problems, and the lonely life of the artist who strives for perfection.
The novel addresses a number of issues including love and fidelity, passion and obsession, self-help and mental illness, honour and trust. These topics give plenty of scope for reflection and discussion.     

Book Club Verdict: 4/6
The book club enjoyed The Swan Thieves but all agreed that it was far too lengthy. That aside, they felt that Kostova has created a rather unique plot with the mystery surrounding Oliver’s obsession with the unknown muse very well developed and maintained.
They enjoyed the sub-plot featuring Beatrice de Clerval, and felt that it, and the novel generally, gave a realistic portrayal of an artist’s dedication to the pursuit of his art.
The book club thought that the characters were very well depicted, and that the settings for the various scenes and storylines were accurately drawn.
Again, they would probably have given it full marks if it were a couple of hundred pages shorter.
÷ Next Month’s Book: Borkmann’s Point by Hakan Nesser