In a reading environment when it seems that every book jacket and promotion screams “relentless page-turner!” or “you’ll stay up all night reading!”, it’s remarkably refreshing to come across an author who takes her own sweet time drawing you into the story.
Elizabeth Kostova does that gorgeously with The Swan Thieves, her follow-up to the faster-paced but equally contemplative debut The Historian, one of the best modern-day takes on Dracula to come out in the last half-century or so. To keep her readers enthralled in both books, Kostova relies not on improbable plot twists or end-of-chapter cliffhangers but on thrills that build across centuries and through the voices of a handful of indelible characters.
The Historian focused on the literary; with The Swan Thieves, the author takes her obvious passion for research and lasting beauty into the art world. The book is, at first, narrated by Andrew Marlow, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist who’s treating Robert Oliver, an accomplished artist who’s apparently had some sort of breakdown.
Oliver is arrested and put into a mental institution after attacking a National Gallery painting depicting the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, in which Zeus ravishes (some translations imply rape) Leda while in the guise of a gigantic bird. Leda also has relations with her husband that night, and later gives birth to two sets of twins, one set immortal (including Helen, who caused all that trouble in Troy) and one set mortal.
There is precedent for Oliver’s behavior: In the 1700s, Louis d’Orleans, a member of the French royal family, for unknown reasons stabbed Correggio’s 16th-century painting of the subject.
Marlow is brought in to find out why Oliver tried to slice the painting (by a fictitious artist), which is difficult as he refuses to speak.
Just before going mute, however, the artist gives Marlow permission to interview anyone he wants about the case. That’s a handy convenience, but it doesn’t stop Marlow from eventually blurring, and in some cases obliterating, all sorts of ethical lines between the professional and personal.
As he investigates the case, Marlow becomes enthralled with the women who surround Oliver: his wife, his young student-lover and a long-dead (fictitious) impressionist artist named Beatrice de Clerval, with whom Oliver seems insanely obsessed. We hear their voices, too, as Marlow’s inquiries lead him from D.C. to the small Virginia college where Oliver had worked to Paris, leading to a denouement that’s deeply satisfying but that won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention.
Kostova uses words exactly as painters use oils, laying down brushstrokes and tiny layers that at first seem disconnected and abstract, but that eventually coalesce into a glorious whole. She creates sentences that can send you pondering for hours: “Perhaps that is the reality of sin, to know the shape of the soul and feel it chafing inside the body.” In all 564 pages, there’s not a single red herring: Everything, no matter how small a clue, fits perfectly into the image that’s finally revealed.
The Swan Thieves will delight lovers of words — she is the most exacting grammarian I’ve ever encountered in fiction — but also may entice a good many readers into paying more attention to fine art. It made me want to run to the library and grab whatever I could find on impressionism and technique, to spend an afternoon at the Dallas Museum of Art looking more closely at the paintings than the guards would probably appreciate, and to learn the crucial differences between umber and sienna, Venetian red and alizarin crimson, violet and ultramarine.