Fluttering in and out of madness, gifted painter Robert Oliver is obsessed with a French woman of the Impressionistic period of art. Placed beside Robert’s genius for portraying the woman on canvas, “The Swan Thieves” spirals into the spiritual realm of great art, the morals of beauty, and delves notonly into the psychs of humans but of the great paintings themselves. “A picture must have mystery” states Robert Oliver, and yet nothing is more mysterious than this haunting novel and its plethora of characters.
Dr. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist who runs a tranquil psychiatric facility, Goldengrove Center, receives a call from a colleague. The colleague has a patient, a gifted painter named Robert Oliver. Oliver has attacked a famous painting in the Impressionist section of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. with a knife. Apprehended before he can desecrate the painting, he is in custody at a psychiatric facility. Dr. Marlow, a painter himself, is intrigued and agrees to admit to Goldengrove. There is only one problem. Robert refuses to speak.
Searching for clues, Marlow visits Oliver every day. The man, like his paintings, is spectacular. Raging, agitated, frustrated, Robert paints one woman in 1800’s dress over and over again. Marlow is astonished at the quality and beauty of the 19th century woman, and though he cannot reach Robert, he tries to seek out other ways to help him, in a circuitous route that spans past and present.
Intersecting Robert Oliver’s illness, Ms. Kostova parallels the strange conundrum with the letters of a beautiful and gifted 19th century artist, Beatrice de Clerval Vignot. The letters (in Robert’s possession) reveal her life in France, where she lives with her well to do husband, Yves, his elderly father, and has frequent visits from Yves’ elderly uncle. The uncle is another renowned artist, Oliver Vignot. Their circle includes many of the Impressionists, struggling in France to give credence to their illusive and beautiful paintings. As the letters increase in intensity, propelling Oliver and Beatrice into a passionate assignation, Beatrice’s only regret is that she has no children. She also holds two terrible secrets, that spin the novel upside down and inside out, like a negative.
Marlow, in themeantime, visits the National Gallery to view the painting that Robert has attacked – “Leda and the Swan” by John Gilbert. He can make no sense of its relevance to his anguished patient Robert, so he decides to speak to Kate, Robert’s ex-wife, and Mary, his girlfriend after Kate. Marlow treads on their grief carefully. Both have been traumatized by Robert’s largeness – his genius, his utter absorption in painting this woman for years, his nightly painting that leaves no room for love, family or relationship. Kate has given up, as has Mary. Both women are painters of great talent themselves, but only Mary has kept herself intact within the onslaught of Robert’s magnetism and obsession.
Dr. Marlow finds himself doing things he would never have done in order to help Robert – and ultimately, himself. He is hopelessly in love with Mary.
Clawing from clue to clue, Marlow asks Robert for Beatrice’s letters and makes copies. He has them translated so he can find the clues inside Robert’s tormented mind. He finally retrieves all the pieces of the puzzle and travels to France to put the puzzle together.
As he realizes the sacrifice Robert, Mary, Kate and Beatrice have made, he realizes the reality of Beatrice, and where Robert’s obsession has come from to the ending at the National Gallery.
A true gift of a novel, the metaphor of “The Swan Thieves” and the impossibility of destroying art and beauty resonates in this sweeping vendetta of art, history, madness and love. Tender, magnificent as the Swans themselves, when Marlow discovers the truth that has maimed so many people, he gives Robert the means to heal.
Absolutely stunning. Unbelievably gifted writer Elizabeth Kostova has us in the palm of her hand from page one.
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Book Review by Broad “A” – Ava
The Swan Thieves: A Novel is available for pre-order from Amazon.com for $14.57 and will be in stores beginning 1/12/10 for $26.99
Thank you to the Hachette Book Group for providing this title for our book review as well as this giveaway. We were in no way paid or compensated for our opinions.
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