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The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
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The Swan Thieves (original 2010; edition 2010)

by Elizabeth Kostova

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,3311762,705 (3.48)1 / 156
Member:Gracelesslady
Title:The Swan Thieves
Authors:Elizabeth Kostova
Info:Back Bay Books (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 592 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
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Work details

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova (2010)

  1. 10
    The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (generalkala)
    generalkala: A similar art novel that also alternates between a present-day plot and a past plot.
  2. 00
    The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber (FFortuna)
  3. 00
    Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand (FFortuna)
  4. 00
    The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa (Johanna11)
  5. 00
    The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary (kraaivrouw)
  6. 00
    The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (alalba)
    alalba: In both books the mental illness of one of the characters is linked to a mystery that a medical practitioner tries to resolve.
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English (170)  Dutch (4)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (176)
Showing 1-5 of 170 (next | show all)
The Swan Thieves – Elizabeth Kostova
4 stars (with reservations)


After the well known artist, Robert Oliver, pulls a knife on a 19th century painting in the National Art Gallery, he is quite naturally referred for psychiatric evaluation. He is sent to a private hospital and placed under the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow. Marlow is himself an artist. When his patient stops speaking, Marlow is overcome with curiosity concerning the case. He goes to extraordinary (and mostly unbelievable) lengths to uncover the roots of Robert Oliver’s obsession. The modern story is told in the voices of Marlow, Kate, the patient’s ex-wife, and Mary, the ex-girlfriend. A second historical storyline dealing with the source of Robert’s obsession is frequently told through a series of old letters. Maintaining his silence, Robert Oliver contributes little to his own history.

To enjoy this book at all, I first had to accept that this was in no way the real world of psychiatric intervention. The author goes to great lengths to avoid disclosing a diagnosis. It is clearly an extreme case of bipolar disorder. In the real world, the man would be diagnosed, hospitalized until his meds were adjusted and released until the next time he chose to go off meds. I once worked in such a hospital, so it was very hard for me to believe in Andrew Marlow as a doctor.
It was the descriptions of the art and the artists’ process that carried the book for me. Kostova did a terrific job of capturing the transforming effect great art can have on those who view it.
The 19th century story line was beautifully told in a way that really made the characters come alive. As the modern story progressed it became clear how Robert Oliver came to be obsessed and then delusional concerning the artistic past.
This is a long, slow moving book. For the most part, I liked it very much. Someone without my jaded experience with our mental health system might enjoy it even more. For a portrayal of mental disease and treatment, I would give it two stars, but I’ll just let that go. As a story, I started giving it 3.5 stars and increased that to 4 stars based on the artistic details.
( )
  msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
Kostova's prose is rich and elegant, and the story that comes to life here -- rather, the various stories that come to life -- wanders within it beautifully. From the beginning, it's difficult not to be drawn into the world of the painter who chose to attack a painting, and the man who attempts to untangle his story and his sanity.

Yet, there is a 'yet'. Though the novel is entrancing from the beginning, something of its magic is lost as it veers in various directions, from recent history back through generations, tracking both letters and lives. Beyond the painter and his therapist, there are other contemporary characters are slightly more superficial, slightly less full, and as various chapters wandered back further into history, I found myself wishing that the novel would have stayed with them, rather than tracing stories so far backward into what was less compelling, except in its relation to the present.

But, all told, there's a calmness and a loveliness to this novel that makes me glad to have stumbled upon it. I think probably that the title and the cover drew me in more than anything, which is fine--I think a reader who's drawn to either will find a lot to love here. I suppose, in the end, I just wish that it had stayed more tightly focused, or spent more of its length upon the women in the book so that they felt a bit more fully considered, and less stereo-typed. When their voices were filling the pages, they were very alive, but when they were in the background, they seemed barely considered, and as if they took a back seat to the looks back in history.

This may be part of the goal of the book, to watch how certain contemporary situations and people paled in comparison to the history with some perspectives, and not with others, but I admit that I could have done with fewer looks back, whether that would have meant more time in the present, or simply a shorter work. Some of those moments felt too... considered, too formed, too perfect. It may be going too far to say that they felt as if they were trying too hard, in a sort of MFA-altered fashion, but I'm not sure it's far from the truth, as they didn't feel fully natural to the book and to the story.

That said, I'm glad to have stumbled on the book, and I'll certainly read Kostova's more widely known Historian, if not more of her work even beyond that. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Apr 17, 2016 |
This book was slow, slow to start, but then I found myself transported to the artist's world -- especially Impressionist era France. When it was over, I was suddenly back in our time. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
Kostova can certainly write a descriptive book, no doubt about it. But after The Historian, I was expecting action, twists. This book says it's about obsession...and it is. About multiple people's obsession. It just gets bogged down in trying to come to the reason for the obsessions. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
Kostova can certainly write a descriptive book, no doubt about it. But after The Historian, I was expecting action, twists. This book says it's about obsession...and it is. About multiple people's obsession. It just gets bogged down in trying to come to the reason for the obsessions. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 170 (next | show all)
"She has worked hard to construct an elaborate fiction of intertwining lives, but the whole situation in which the characters intertwine feels contrived, and they cross as the result of too much coincidence."

 
"But Kostova's new book, set partly in Washington, tells a rather simple story, and its characters, although they sometimes insist otherwise, don't change radically over time."
 
Kostova clearly did her research, richly painting images of famous and lesser-known works of art, and the settings that inspired them. But overall, the story just isn’t gripping. It feels overstuffed with description and underdeveloped in terms of plot. It’s a mystery without suspense.
 
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Epigraph
You would hardly believe how difficult it is to place a figure alone on a canvas, and to concentrate all the interest on this single and universal figure and still keep it living and real. --Edouard Manet, 1880
Dedication
For my mother
la bonne mere
First words
Outside the village there is a fire ring, blackening the thawing snow.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe has a perfectly ordered life - solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient. Desperate to understand the secret that torments this genius, Marlowe embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism. Kostova's masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy; from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, from young love to last love. The Swan Thieves is a story of obsession, history's losses, and the power of art to preserve hope.
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Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.… (more)

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