Thursday, March 28, 2013

Literary Bite: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I suggested my book club read The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, but honestly, I have no idea who recommended it to me in the first place. Anyone? [Update: mystery solved, it was this lovely grammarian.] Oh well, I’m glad it was good!

It's about an incredibly talent American painter, Robert Oliver, who attacks a painting at the National Gallery (I love stories that take place in DC!). After that Oliver refuses to speak, so his psychiatrist, Marlow, takes an unconventional approach to Oliver’s treatment and digs into Oliver’s past. “As Marlow is pulled deeper within Oliver’s troubled mind, he uncovers a tale of love, betrayal, and artistic obsession, and finds surprising possibilities in a package of nineteenth-century love letters.” (source)

Basically it is Marlow going back through the women in Oliver’s life – his ex-wife, mistress, and a mysterious and captivating woman in a painting – trying to piece it all together, but then getting sucked in to Oliver’s obsessions himself.

Don’t be intimidated by the book's length, just settle in for the ride. The story switches narrators and time periods chapter by chapter, so it really never drags. I preferred the modern-day parts of the story over the nineteenth century pieces, but they all came together well. The Swan Thieves isn’t particularly revolutionary, just a very nice read.

Oddly enough, as a non-artist, I really enjoyed reading about painters painting:

  • “The wilted garden is already covered with subtle color - indeed, it isn’t white. Beige, today? Silver? Colorless, if there is such a thing?”
  • “I believe in walking out of a museum before the paintings you've seen begin to run together. How else can you carry anything away with you in your mind's eye?”
  • “I don't think painters have the answers about a painting except the painting itself. Anyway, a painting has to have some kind of mystery to it to make it work.” 

The painting that Oliver attacks in the book is pure fiction -- “Leda” by Gilbert Thomas does not exist, nor does an artist named Gilbert Thomas for that matter. The swan myth it's based on is real though, and there are a lot of paintings depicting that story (Zeus comes to earth in the form of a swan and either rapes or seduces the beautiful Leda). The closest painting at the National Gallery is Raphael's Leda and the Swan, c. 1507:

Conclusion? A lovely read. I say go for it!