The Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova
I really, really wanted to love this book, because I thoroughly enjoyed The Historian.
I guess my main problem with this book was that I could never quite figure out what was going on, so it always felt like I was sinking in quicksand with nothing to hold onto. And I'm sure that the author wanted me to not quite know what was going on-- that was the big mystery central to the story, wasn't it? It was the thing that kept me listening. But after a while, after, maybe, 10 discs, I was just annoyed as heck that I wasn't any closer to figuring it out. The connection to Beatrice was obvious. But was he channelling her? Was he somehow imagining that he knew her? Was there some kind of weird time travel going on? Was she projecting her life to him in her dreams (she was always talking about her dreams). Was she aware of the connection between them? Was she having the same sort of thing where she would start painting him just as he was painting her? I thought that would be amazing. Alas, none of that came to pass. Robert Oliver just really liked her work and fixated on her. Boring compared to all the possibilities that were rushing through my mind after 17 LONG discs of wondering.
Also, I really didn't care for the main character, the detective. Marlow might have been cool, but he lost me during his first trip to the art museum where he starts describing one of the museum employee's body and thinks about having sex with her. And then, minutes later, he's doing to same thing regarding a woman he's standing next to in the gallery (okay, so he ends up actually having a relationship with her later). And then not long after, he goes to talk with his patient's ex-wife and immediately starts by describing her breasts. Yeah. Made me lose interest in the guy from the start.
Okay, so the story has to do with art. And in that respect, I was captivated. We saw art from so many different angles and in so many different ways. New artists, occasional artists, art professors, art students, artists from a century ago, art collectors, families of artists, etc. For 17 discs we lived and breathed so many aspects of the art world. If I didn't already appreciate art, I'm sure the book would have made me do so. It was not only well-researched but well-described. I was absolutely in love with that aspect. It was so vivid and real.
Which brings me to the story. The main story is about Robert Oliver, a painter who attacked a painting in the National Gallery of Art (a painting which doesn't actually exist, I'm sad to say). A psychiatrist (who happens to paint a little as a hobby) is brought in to figure out why he attacked it. We hear bits of the story from people who know Oliver, because Oliver doesn't speak much (or at all) in present day, mostly his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend (who the psychiatrist later befriends and sleeps with). We also get the story of Beatrice, a French painter from the late 1800s we find out that Robert Oliver is obsessed with. She struggles with her identity as a female painter in that time period and is self-conscious about her work. The stories in the two time periods run parallel for a while, but (as I said) there isn't enough insight into either until the end.
And that's where my main complaint comes in. IMO, The Swan Thieves painting should REALLY have been introduced long before. When we find out near the end that it exists and is amazing, it's not at all as powerful as it could have been because I hadn't known about it before that. There was no emotional pull for me. And the big moment where Marlow gets to see the painting fell flat for me because I didn't care a bit about the painting that was, in fact, so important that it is the title of the novel.
The ending actually infuriated me. When I saw Elizabeth Kostova at the National Book Festival this September, about a week after I had finished the book, I was really tempted to go up to the mic and ask her what exactly Marlow thought he was thanking Robert Oliver for (thank you for going crazy? thank you for passing your appreciation/obsession on to me? thank you for your girlfriend who's now my girlfriend?). But I thought that might, you know, spoil the ending for everyone else (almost all the questions were about The Historian).
The story was slow for me. The characters were a little flat. But the description of the art & art world and the appreciation for art was beautiful. It was certainly worth reading the book just for that.