Monday, February 15, 2010

Another Review of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

From Winnipeg Free Press --

Kostova's fevered novel expected to age well --

Reviewed by Laurence Broadhurst --
30/01/2010 --

The Swan Thieves
By Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown, 565 pages, $33

Elizabeth Kostova's fevered new novel is not a sequel to her 2005 groundbreaking bestseller The Historian. It will unjustly suffer if it is read as one.

But it is tempting to do so for several reasons. Both novels are about obsessions. Both are narrated by a variety of voices crucial to intricate plots. Both jump regularly between the studying present and the studied past.

Both use the ploy of found letters to enliven that past. Both are cheapish mystery mocked up as rich history. And both are tremendously long and dense.

Overtly, this second novel by the American art-school grad is at pains to announce that it is about art and lovers of art.

Everything about the book does this. The main object is Robert Oliver, a dark and quiet but charismatic, semi-wild artist and art teacher who commits the pivotal crime: in the National Gallery in Washington, he assaults a 19th-century French painting of a Greek myth (Zeus-as-swan and his human paramour Leda, who will mother Helen of Troy).

The main character is Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist charged with decoding and recuperating Oliver, and a man who fancies himself an amateur artist.

At one point, at wits end to crack Oliver's persistent brooding and silence, Marlow even resorts to sketching him. The supporting characters, Oliver's damaged women and the late 19th-century circle of Parisians, are all artists.

They love painting, they paint, they talk about painting, they write about painting -- they are even painted.

The main victim and key in the mystery is that French painting, its story and its history. Even the cover of the book is a painting.

Marlow concludes that healing Oliver can only be accomplished by deciphering the motives for his powerfully ironic act. Why would a great, successful painter, a lover and teacher of painting, try to stab a painting?

His patient goes mute, giving him only the name of a woman -- not his estranged wife -- and some old French letters.

Marlow, a kind, middle-aged intellectual who is strangely single, puts on his Robert Langdon tweeds and sets out to take up the chase, now in Washington, now New York, now Maine, now North Carolina, now Mexico, and now, inevitably, Paris.

Those who read The Swan Thieves merely as either a manically anticipated sequel or a novel about art, or both, will be dearly disappointed.

They will complain that the art history is too contrived, that the artsy characters are stereotypes, or that the great girth of the novel is less an echo of the depth of Kostova's debut and more her belaboured writing-by-brushing.

They will even chirp that The Historian was a great novel, sold spectacularly to be made into a film and wonder if The Swan Thieves is less slow-cooked novel and more raw script.

But the book is not really about visuals. It is a long mystery by a writer who must have read Dan Brown but tired of his tiny chapters, awful characterization, campy dialogue and frenetic pace.

On a deeper level, though, the book is about a cleverly retold Greek myth. As so many Greek myths, it is therefore about gender, about age, about humanity, about memory and about truth -- about men behaving as women and women behaving as men, about seniors and juniors falling in lust and love, about beautiful children and ugly children, about wonders remembered and about creative lies.

It took Kostova a decade to fashion The Historian, an immediate smashing success. Only four years later comes The Swan Thieves, destined to disappoint now but to age well.

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