May 11, 2011

The Swan Theives by Elizabeth Kostova

I'm always excited to see a big fat book I've never read before, doubly so if it's by a writer I'm familiar with. I grabbed this almost without thought during my last trip to the library, registering the writer's name with a mental golf clap, and salivated at its juicy width without actually knowing anything of the contents.

I reviewed The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova nearly two years ago. It was a compelling yet somewhat disturbing read, because it took a familiar myth, the story of Dracula, and made it seem plausible. It was psychologically dark, and several times its darkness made me feel I ought not to be reading it, but I am not one to put a book down unless it is phenomenally bad.

The Swan Thieves is also dark, but not in the same way. I never felt my soul was suffering for coming back to it every night. It's dark in a more romantic way, the way of impossible love and tortured artists and fascinating spans of History. It centers around painting, Impressionistic painting in particular. I do enjoy art but have never studied it and don't especially want to. I don't want to become one of those people that becomes so cerebral about brushstrokes and geometry and form and self-importance that they can't see the forest for the trees. I think there's a real purity about appreciating art in a state of ignorance. It's not an excuse; I have met too many art snobs that I have no wish to be like.

The Swan Thieves is the story of a troubled artist, Robert Oliver, who paints the same unknown woman in great detail obsessively and repeatedly. In doing so he loses his sanity and his relationships, until he is led to attacking a painting at the Met, resulting in his arrest and institutionalization. His psychiatrist, Dr. Marlow, a painter himself, is determined to get to the bottom of Oliver's issues. But when he is stonewalled by his patient he is forced to investigate on his own.

What follows is an interesting story of a talented female painter living at the time and space of Monet and other great Impressionists. As Marlow uncovers her story the reader finds it mirroring Marlow's own (a bit cliche in my opinion). He unravels a semi-great mystery and we find ourselves in a happily-ever-after scenario.

This was a good book, but not as riveting as The Historian. I had trouble getting into it and staying with it, not really getting interested until about halfway through. The first half reminded me too much of the film Don Juan DeMarco, although it's not at all comical. The mystery once unraveled isn't as climactic as the modern reader has come to expect, and the ending was too easy. Oliver experiences a complete full recovery as soon as Marlow reveals his knowledge of it, even though Oliver already has complete knowledge of it, and is released the next day. I don't like easy explanations or endings that seem to have come together under a looming deadline. I feel this book, while good, could have been better. That being said, I will certainly read whatever Kostova comes up with next, and hope she has learned from this one.

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