The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova – Book Review

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.

Highly Recommended.

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  1. I am one that thoroughly loved The Historian…mystery, a bit of spooky, with her beautiful prose, all told through letters. I just wanted to roll around in it, and never wanted it to end! So when you describe this book (which I’ve been SO excited about) it brings it all back. I MUST read this! Beautiful review!
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Sunday Salon: Food and Water =-.

  2. I just finished the historian a couple of weeks ago — it took me over a month to get through (mainly due to reading it in fits and spurts on planes, etc). This books sounds even more interesting, but I’m not sure if I want to commit to another large book right now. It’s definitely going on my TBR list though, hopefully I’ll get around to it at some point!

  3. I’m glad to know this one is so good! I am one of those few who really didn’t like The Historian all that much, so I didn’t really have much interest in this book until reading this positive review.
    .-= Aarti´s last blog ..Bloggiesta Wrap-Up [TSS] =-.

  4. I have never heard of The Historian, But I have had this book in my sites for quite a while. I was first drawn to it by the cover art. And your review joins many others that have been great. I have had this on my wish list for many months now. Are you planning a giveaway soon? I would love to enter if you are. I would love to read this one. The cover is just drawing me in to this one for some reason. And I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to the cover art. Go figure.

  5. I have this review to write tonight. You are absolutely correct that Kostova’s writing is what makes the book. It is just so compelling and just enfolds you into the story like a warm blanket. I’m glad to see you liked it too!
    .-= Michelle´s last blog ..The Sunday Salon – January 10, 2010 =-.

  6. I’ve had The Historian on my shelves for a long time now. I won it in Devourer of Book’s first giveaway. I’ve been wanting to read it for so long now. This one I also want to read. Your last paragraph sealed the deal for me. I need to get a move on.
    .-= Literate Housewife´s last blog ..#226 ~ The Glass Room =-.

  7. I have The Historian and am reading it right now, and you are totally right. Elizabeth weaves this amazing story together beautifully. I haven’t read The Swan Theives yet, but I’m looking forward to getting it soon. Thanks for the review!