Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book 16: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was furnished to me by the wonderful people at the Hachette Book Group.

Between my junior and senior year of college, I had the opportunity to come to Germany for two to three weeks as part of CTLT through Army ROTC. The intent behind the program is to give cadets as chance to see what the real Army is actually like and shadow a platoon leader around for a while since that was the job most of us would have once we graduated and commissioned. This is the same summer that I found Kostova's The Historian at the bookstore. I started reading it on a Sunday, and despite the fact that I knew I had to get up early (like 4 or 4:30) the next day to do a meet and greet with a general, I stayed up until 1 trying to finish it. The next day, I was in a conference room with the general and about four or five other cadets, and started dozing off due to my lack of sleep. Obviously, everyone noticed. Thank God I was only a cadet at the time and not actually in the Army.

When I heard that Kostova had a new novel being released I was incredibly excited, even if this one had nothing to do with vampires. And when I had the opportunity to get a free copy, I naturally jumped at it.

While the topics of her two novels are rather different, Kostova displays a great ability to interweave the past and the present in her novels - in both stories, people become deeply involved and fascinated by the past, researching it in an almost obsessive fashion. This was another page turner, although this time I wasn't looking over my shoulders for supernatural beings.

Andrew Marlowe, a psychiatrist, is the main narrator, though his view is intersected with old letters from 1878, and a few chapters told from the perspectives of two different women, Kate and Mary. The common link between all these things is the artist Robert Oliver. After Oliver is arrested in the National Gallery in DC for attempting to attack a painting, Marlowe agrees to take the case off of a friend's hand since Marlowe himself is a bit of an amateur artist.

Oliver stops talking shortly after arriving at Marlowe's institution, though he gives him permission to speak to anyone he needs to speak to. In order to understand and help his patient, Marlowe contacts his ex-wife, Kate, and pursues a few other trails, trying to understand Oliver's illness and his obsession with a particular woman that appears time and again in his paintings. One of the only things he says when asked about his reasons for attacking the painting is that he did it for her. As the women of Oliver's life share his case history, it becomes clear that this woman tends to be a marker for chaotic periods in his life though he claims both that she is dead and imaginary.

Much of the novel also talks about the Impressionists and how Oliver's work is very similar to theirs. I at one point considered Monet my favorite artist, though now I would probably say Alphonse Mucha. As moving as the Impressionists can be, occasionally I feel like it's so cliche to like them, and Kostova talks about this a little bit through Marlowe: "Those endless retrospectives, with their accompanying tote bags, mugs, and notepaper, had put me off Impressionism . . . We post-moderns take them for granted, or disdain them, or love them too easily. But they had been the radicals of their day, exploding traditions of brushwork, making subject matter of ordinary life, and bringing painting out of the studio and into the gardens, fields and seascapes of France" (44).

I actually really enjoyed being reminded of how much I liked the Impressionists and why - another novel I read this year also dealt with Impressionism but it left a very bad taste in my mouth because it was so boring (stay away from With Violets!) - this novel on the other hand made it all seem so much more alive.

While occasionally it seemed like Marlowe should have been piecing things together more quickly, such as the importance of the letters, overall I really liked this novel - it was a character study, a novel devoted to art, and a historical mystery all combined. It also portrayed the difficulties of living with an artist, and someone with a disease in particular. I thought the relationships were rather realistic - Kate and Robert were both artists when they met, but Kate also wants children and gives up her painting, yet is still accused of being unsupportive. It was an interesting dynamic but it definitely shows that it might be difficult to have two artists in a family, especially when one is more talented or the other wants "normal" things.

Monets at the National Gallery in DC

No comments: