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The Woman in the Picture.
The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova
Member Name: QueenElf
The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova
Date: 01/09/11, updated on 02/09/11 (46 review reads)
Advantages: Excellent story, beautiful writing, spans a time period I love.
Disadvantages: None for me, but may be long for some.
Elizabeth Kostova is one of those rare female authors whose work is timeless, ageless and sexless. With the Swan Thieves she proves her versatility once again, showing that her first book, the acclaimed novel The Historian, was no fluke.
I'll not use the word 'plot' here, as this is a complicated book with many strands spanning the present day, the recent past and the 19th century, in particular the years around the age of the Impressionist painters.
It opens with Dr Andrew Marlow, a respected psychiatrist and bachelor, whose ordered life, is interrupted when he takes on the care of a distressed man, the eminent painter and teacher, Robert Oliver. Robert is apprehended trying to stab a painting of a swan in the National gallery. He is also obsessed with painting one image, that of a beautiful dark-haired woman who is almost always depicted as a woman of the past, though he claims in just one sentence that she is real and alive. Thereafter he refuses to speak and is not able to be released into society again.
Dr Marlow accepts him as an inpatient in the Goldengrove institute he has practiced in for twelve years, but he will need the help of many people before he can help Robert. These include Robert's ex-wife Kate, who narrates her side of the story. Then he seeks out Mary, Robert's ex-lover who also narrates her tale, a haunting story of which Marlow has to unravel and find out who the woman in Robert's paintings are before he can get anywhere at all.
Robert allows Marlow a look at the bundle of letters, which date from the 19th century and are between another painter, the elderly Olivier Vignot and his niece by marriage, Beatrice who also paints. Since Marlow paints as a hobby himself, he is able to follow the correspondence and the frequent references to the Impressionists of that time. This is no plot-spoiler; the narrative weaves between Marlow, Kate, Mary and the voice of the letters, Beatrice herself. What follows is a tale as haunting as it's subject and the ending is unanticipated.
Notes on style and content.
There is something very measured and paced about this author's writing. It recalls the style of earlier writers, in particular the early 20th century so one comes to think of her as part writer part historian.
The quality of her writing is in it's restraint, the careful structure balancing darkness and light, suggesting the very atmosphere of the times she captures with words, instead of brush on canvass.
This was evident in her debut novel, The Historian so the suggestion of artistry in words is possibly not intentional but an inbuilt talent that cannot be rushed or categorized hastily. Where there is hesitation in the narrative the topic requires delicacy of touch and, at times, her words are like musical notes, plucked from a harp-string, resonating into space and time.
One would expect her then to shy away from earthiness, but she writes of passion with a sense of maleness that one wouldn't associate with a woman; such is the power of the erotic vanity of her male characters.
In choosing to write of the impressionists she approaches with wit and intelligence showing a true understanding of her subject matter. I imagine this novel was heavily researched dealing with the topics of obsession in both love and art. Although I know little of psychology I see her as having a good understanding of this as well. I could even go as far as to think the subject of her book is not just a love story resonating through the ages, but one of underlining the very real aspects of tenderness and desperation, so close together.
Her love scenes echo the age she writes about, therefore the contrast of modern-day permissiveness to the gentility of latter-day courtship couldn't be more of a contrast. Even so, the passion that runs throughout the book seems like a constant yearning ready to spring into full-blooded rapture.
My point is that some may feel the book overlong, while I see it as a build-up to something splendid and heart-felt, leaving me as speechless as the victim of his own passion, the hapless Robert, and, to some extent, Andrew Marlow as well.
I won't go into any length on this as its one of those character-driven stories again. I did love the idea of several love stories happening in the past and present and the way the characters respond to their mutual love of art. There is also something of the role of women in art and female liberation as well. Perhaps a touch of the depth Tracey Chevalier brings to her characters.
I did find myself in sympathy with Robert's women as he drives them to despair with his obsession. I also loved the character of Andrew Marlow as the patient yet driven and caring doctor. I am afraid of giving too much away with the roles his female characters play, so I'll just add that Kostova's females are no 'shrinking violets.'
While the book is a long one at 600 pages in paperback, I hope I've given some reasons for its length. It could have been told quicker, but what a loss that would have been. I loved the spanning of the eras, the love stories unraveling between old and young love, a type of 'May to December' magic.
I loved the theme of love and painting, given that I dabble a bit myself and studied the impressionists as part of my A-Level art. (Though that was a long time ago, some things don't change.)
So highly recommended for anyone who loves a good story told with artistry and love.
My copy is a 2nd hand find. You can buy this for £2.29 new on Amazon. The Kindle edition is priced at £4.49.
Summary: Love and mystery combine in a artist's enviroment.