Elizabeth Kostova has crafted a complicated double plot. The one set in the modern-day is about an artist, Robert Oliver, who tries to attack a painting in the National Gallery of Art and is confined for psychiatric observation under the care of Dr. Andrew Marlow who happens to paint as a hobby. A second plot involves the 1890s artists with whom Oliver becomes obsessed.
The story is relayed to us by chapters seen from the point of view of the various characters: Dr. Marlow, Oliver's divorced wife Kate, Oliver's estranged girlfriend Mary, and the translated letters of the woman artist that Oliver became obsessed with. That artist was Beatrice de Clerval, a very accomplished painter who unfortunately gave up her career after becoming a mother. Oliver's wife need not have worried about this “other woman” – she lived in 1890s France.
But both women who get involved with Oliver feel kind of creepy about his obsession with Ms. Clerval. Oliver gets into these streaks when he stays up late painting sketches and oils of this woman, over and over.
I said that on one level this is a double love story – but on another level this is a detective story, with the aptly named Dr. Marlow hunting down the nature of Oliver's problem, the personal history with Kate and Mary, the identity of his love, where he saw her, who else did he talk to about the characters in that long-ago drama. I am less interested in the first than in the second level.
My primary complaint with the novel is that while it is good, it could have benefited from a great deal of tight editing. It dawdled for long stretches in which I had to force myself to keep going just to reach the payoff. It wallowed in emotional details on the part of Kate and Mary and indeed all of the female characters both past and present, in a way that the male characters did not. Oh, please, this one just cries out for the Reader's Digest version -- please forgive me.
The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova, Back Bay Books (Little, Brown and Company), New York – Boston – London, 2010, 561 pages not including study guide. ISBN: 978-0316065788