In 2005, Elizabeth Kostova burst onto the literary scene with her unforgettable first novel, The Historian. When Jenny wanted to read her recently published second novel as this month's co-review, I eagerly agreed, anxious to see what Kostova would come up with. After all, The Historian would be tough act to follow!
The Swan Thieves is very much a departure from the world of vampires, mysterious disappearances, and barbaric torture portrayed in The Historian. But there were still some familiar aspects of Kostova's writing in her shifting narratives, interest in history, and the way she convincingly merged both fiction and historical fact. This time, the object of her historical interest is the rise of French Impressionism in the late 19th century. (See, I said it was a departure from vampires.)
The Swan Thieves opens in 1999, but much of the story is told in flashback. Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist and amateur painter who is baffled at how to help his newest patient, Robert Oliver, a famous contemporary artist who is arrested for trying to attack an Impressionist painting in the National Gallery in DC. After telling Marlow that he "did it for her," Oliver refuses to speak, but obsessively paints a certain woman over and over again. In an effort to break his silence and try to help him, Marlow begins a search into Oliver's past to learn who this woman is and why he is obsessed with her.
Through Marlow's investigation we meet Kate, Oliver's ex-wife, and hear the heartbreaking story of a marriage destroyed by mental illness. We meet Mary, the young former student Oliver turns to after his divorce, but who also falls victim to his obsession with this other woman. And through letters and a healthy dose of imagination, we also meet the enigmatic woman herself, Béatrice de Clerval, a young artist in the early days of French Impressionism who develops a romantic attachment to an elderly friend and mentor (also, complicatedly, her husband's uncle), which ultimately puts an early stop to her promising career. As the separate stories unfold and intertwine, they parallel each other with recurring themes of forbidden love, love between disparate ages, and the creative passion and skill required of great fine artists. There aren't any great spoilers to reveal with this one, but if you are interested in reading it yourself, beware that you might learn more than you'd like through our discussion.
Caren: First, I have to say that I loved reading about the art, particularly the Impressionists. It took me back to my college days where Art History was one of my favorite disciplines in the Humanities, and Impressionism was a definite highlight. I am not an artist myself, so I don't know how well Kostova represented that side of things, but it felt convincing and genuine to me. I just wish that there could have been accompanying images because although she did a good job portraying the visual works through the written word, it still left me hungry to see them myself.
Jenny: The art was fascinating to me and to hear how the artists themselves describe how they saw light and color was amazing. Having never even taken so much as an art class and very little art history in college (except for when it was in tandem with music history), this was all new territory for me. I can label most artistic movements and recognize major works, but not much more than that. Reading this book gave me a fierce craving to learn more.
I love how Kostova takes real people and makes a lovely fictional tale out of what bare facts history has recorded. Like her rendition of Vlad the Impaler in The Historian, she turns Beatrice de Clerval into a fascinating character. I wonder if Kostova studied de Clerval's paintings at some point and said, "Hmm, she stopped painting at the age of twenty-nine. I wonder what happened..." And there her story formed in her imagination.
I felt like this was really a love story with the art history as a beautiful excuse to write about it. It made me sad that these love stories revolved around infidelity, with so many of the characters being unfaithful to their spouses. Of course, you also see the heartbreak that accompanies that behavior so at least Kostova wasn't necessarily endorsing it. One of the saddest situations is just how many people Robert Oliver hurt because of his obsession with Beatrice. She made have been dead for nearly a century, but his obsessive love for her ruined his marriage. That counts nearly as much as if he'd had an affair.
Caren: Okay, you brought up an interesting aspect of Kostova's writing. She does such a good job combining fiction and history that it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. As a reader I was persuaded that de Clerval and the other players in her historical drama were real. But it turns out that they were all fiction (thanks Google!). Even Gilbert Thomas, the character who seemed to be the most entrenched in historical fact was fictional. But she gives them enough historical back story that it was hard to tell!
You also mentioned one of the things that bugged me about the book. All the infidelity got old after a while. And I had a hard time caring that much about the characters. Kate interested me at the beginning, but then she dropped off and we never saw her again. Mary didn't impress me all that much; Marlow seemed weirdly obsessive with the women in Oliver's life; and then the relationship between the two of them didn't do anything for me. I think part of it may have been that too much of the story was told in these rambling flashback monologues about events that weren't all that significant in moving the plot forward. Not much happened, even with the resolution. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I can enjoy a thoughtful story with a slow pace. But it only works if I care deeply about the characters so that they're personal drama is very moving. I would have loved to see things from Oliver's perspective, because he was the most intriguing person in the story. But as it was, I wasn't that engaged with the others.
Jenny: Okay, now I feel stupid. I should have checked first if Beatrice de Clerval was a real person. Oh well, I guess that's a credit to Kostova's convincing storytelling.
I'm totally with you on not loving the characters. When Marlow was so emotional about becoming a father, I wasn't particularly moved. Did you get the impression he was so keen on having a family and being a father? I didn't get that, but part of it was that I didn't really feel like I knew any of these people all that well. I didn't particularly like what I saw either, what will all the sleeping around and cheating on spouses and whatnot. I would have loved to get a glimpse in Oliver's mind, but I suppose that would negate the whole mystery of why he was obsessed. You know who I did like? Marlow's dad. He was awesome. My favorite line from him was, "Madame, I observe that your heart is broken. Allow me to repair it for you." That killed me.
Honestly, I kept expecting there to be a supernatural element to it, like Robert was Olivier Vignot's reincarnation or something weird. I mean, she did just write a book about Dracula after all.
Caren: Don't feel bad because I couldn't tell either who was fiction and who wasn't. I had to look it up! And I was totally looking for the supernatural too. Some sort of otherworldly explanation for his obsession and what it meant. Especially since Marlow seemed to fall prey to the same obsession the more he investigated Robert Oliver's past. What was the deal with this woman that she inspired such obsessions? And maybe that missing supernatural element is one more reason it was disappointing. Kostova is going to have a hard time shaking the prejudices from The Historian!
I was telling my sister how much more I enjoyed The Historian over The Swan Thieves. She hasn't read either one yet, so I suggested that she read The Swan Thieves first so that her perspective isn't colored by The Historian. I hope she does because I would be really curious to hear what someone thinks who approaches it for the first time without the baggage of The Historian.
Jenny: My husband would call that "managing expectations". If your sister reads The Swan Thieves first, tell her to leave what she thinks in the comment box. I'm curious about what an untainted opinion would be like.
I feel like we've just trashed this book. The suspense of finding out the mystery of Robert's obsession was compelling. The art history and descriptions were totally enjoyable. There were good aspects of this book.
Caren: Oh yeah, definitely. Kostova has distinctive abilities as a writer and I wouldn't hesitate to try another novel of hers. I just wouldn't necessarily rush to recommend this particular one.