Troubled artist Robert Oliver first comes to psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe’s attention as the difficult referral of a colleague after he tries to slash a painting at the National Gallery of Art with a butter knife. Marlowe is prideful of his reputation for getting patients to open up and speak with him, but before his first meeting with Oliver is over, he has already fallen under the spell of the talented painter.
After months of in-patient treatment, Marlowe still can’t get Oliver to utter a word. Oliver displays an obstinate obsession with a mysterious woman whom he paints again and again, and Marlowe becomes increasingly determined to find out everything that he can about Oliver from his ex-wife and former girlfriend, ostensibly in hopes of treating his patient- but is it at too high a price when Marlowe’s deeply ordered life begins to fall apart under the weight of his investigation?
Despite having had The Historian on my shelves for years, I still have yet to read it- but have heard enough about it that I was immediately excited to hear that Elizabeth Kostova had a new book coming out. When authors have hugely popular debut novels the expectations and the scrutiny concerning the sophomore offering can be quite intense. I’m actually glad that I was able to read The Swan Thieves first since that means I have nothing with which to compare it. I really enjoyed this novel, so now if The Historian is even better, then it’s a win for me. Bring it on!
Kostova’s writing is a reader’s dream. The rich language is descriptive of characters and setting, and I was seamlessly folded into Andrew Marlowe’s quiet life as a psychiatrist and dilettante artist, which is suddenly disturbed by the curiously urgent need to delve so deeply into treating this particular patient. Interspersed with curious love letters from Impression Era France, I was on the edge of my seat to try and figure out how the people of the past influenced and intersected with the characters I had come to know in present day Washington, DC.
As Marlowe speaks with the main women in Oliver’s life I was completely wrapped up with these women and how they balanced life with such a complex and frustrating man. While I could see the initial appeal, I was focused on how each of them changed to accommodate Oliver’s larger than life persona and talent, and the peculiar way in which Marlowe, in a sense, mimicked their responses in his search for information.
Art is always at the forefront, and in the background of The Swan Thieves. Thankfully my skill with a brush has nothing to do with my ability to enjoy a psychologically suspenseful novel immersed in the details of art and the artistic life. I definitely had some impatient moments with this book because I ached to know what was going next, even as I was absorbed in Kostova’s lush writing.
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