I was under the impression that I got a steal of a deal on a signed copy of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. My anticipation of the book’s release – a novel about painting and obsession, by the author of The Historian no less! – was such that I planned out my purchase beforehand. I waited for it to appear on the bestseller list, making it eligible for a discount at my preferred bookstore. Then I redeemed a full book club card, held in reserve for this express purpose, for an additional savings. The price I paid was so reduced I felt like I was ripping off the store! The manager (who happens to be my friend Drew) had read an advanced copy of the book and assured me that was not the case. I waited to read his unfavorable review so that I wouldn’t be biased, but what he told me tempered my expectations.
I forged ahead, chewing my way through the first 250 pages of what is essentially back story. I can understand why a psychiatrist would find that information useful in treating a taciturn patient, but it hardly advances the story. The story is worth advancing: Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, is apprehended in an attempt to slash a 19th century painting. Deranged, he is referred to the care of Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist and part-time painter who presumably will understand this peculiar painter-patient. It is said that Dr. Marlow could get a rock to talk, but he is unable to crack Oliver’s reticence. In the course of treatment Marlow provides Oliver with painting supplies, which he uses to paint a captivating woman. He paints the same woman obsessively and soon Dr. Marlow’s care goes far beyond professional. Marlow meets with Oliver’s ex-wife and his mistress, but neither one is a match for the mystery woman who graces his portraits and torments his mind. Who is she, and what is her connection to the painting he attacked?
It’s an intriguing story told through an irritating narrative. Marlow is the primary narrator, with supplements from the ex-wife, the mistress, and some letters from the mystery woman herself. With the exception of the letters the first-person narrations are wholly unreliable. Marlow imagines the historical chapters, undermining some of the best writing the novel has to offer. Many of the details shared by the ex-wife and the mistress are as jarring as speed bumps, both irrelevant to the story and unrealistic in that they are shared with a man whom they have just met (Marlow). Do these damaged women have such blind trust in a therapist that they would describe his patient’s nipples and pubic hair to him, or mention from whom they learned to insert a tampon properly? Really? Kostova’s extensive character studies are commendable, but details of that nature belong in the author’s notes, not the book itself. Fine concept, poor conceit.
I have not participated in an MFA program, but given the fact that Kostova won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress at the University of Michigan I daresay that this novel would have benefited from the refinery of a workshop. Had Kostova spent more time on the back end and less on the back story The Swan Thieves would have left a better impression.
One final note: I would not recommend reading this novel within a week of watching the movie What About Bob? unless you want to confuse Dr. Andrew Marlow with Dr. Leo Marvin. Baby steps!