Dr. Andrew Marlow is an ordinary psychiatrist and painter, solitary but completely comfortable with the familiar routines of his life. This drastically changed when Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, was arrested and incarcerated in a mental institution after attacking a painting in the National Gallery of Art. Marlow, with the painter under his care, must find out the mysteries that culminated in the peculiar assault. He was led to three women from Oliver’s past, each having their own stories that complete the enigma of Oliver’s life and, unexpectedly, fulfill the lacks in Marlow’s life as well.
This is more or less the gist of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves—a tale of art, history, love, and obsession. I must admit that I’m quite cynical when I opened the book for the first time. It looked like a doorstop to me and I have this feeling that it will be circuitous. My hunch is confirmed and that’s one of the downsides of this book: it is a tad too lengthy. While the writer’s long and detailed descriptions can be justified by saying that the story was told in the points of view of artists—all major characters in the book are painters—sometimes it seems to be getting overkill.
Now we move on to the characters. Even with the keen eye of the narrator for descriptions (or perhaps because of it) I must say that the characters were not very well-developed. Kostova took a lot of effort in describing the characters’ physical features and a few traits, but that did not help the characters to be inched forward in the level of “three-dimensional”. What I’m always looking forward to in a story is if the characters I would meet would feel as if they are just outside my window. I did not feel that way with this book; I think the characters need to be more fleshed out. The ending did not make much impact on me. If Oliver was molded into a more real guy, someone that the reader would actually care about if he was cured or not, I think the force of the ending would be felt. The same with Oliver’s ex-mistress—she had chapters chockfull of introspection about her love for Oliver and whatnot, but what about her feelings for Marlow? The readers were not given the view from that angle, and with Marlow’s side only shown, it felt a bit unreal and abrupt.
The story was told in the first person point of view. All in all there were three narrators and one frame story contained in the letters Oliver was obsessing over. My quibble about this is that reader would not be able to distinguish who was talking if it was not indicated at the top of ever chapter; their voices were the same. That, of course, goes again to the problem about character development. They needed to have more distinguishing characteristics.
What I enjoyed about this tale is the mysterious and rather insane bits about art and history of the Impressionist period. I felt like I was in my Humanities class again, meeting those painters and knowing the insights of some people about them. Truth to be told, the details in the book kind of sparked the little artist spirit in me. I used to draw a lot of still lifes and stuff before, and reading about people who were painting made me feel a bit nostalgic. Also, I think my impatient need to uncover the details of the mystery made me turn the pages, even if I have more or less guessed what was going on halfway through the ending.
It was not a bad book but it’s definitely not one of the stories I would strongly recommend.