Monday, February 1, 2010

Review of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

From The Observer (UK) --

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova --

By Lisa O'Kelly --
24 January 2010 --

Elizabeth Kostova's first novel was breathtaking, but can she match it with her follow-up, asks Lisa O'Kelly

Where do you go next when your first novel turns out to be the fastest-selling debut in American literary history? That was the challenge facing Elizabeth Kostova after The Historian (2005) sold 2 million copies in hardback, knocked The Da Vinci Code off the top of the of the New York Times bestseller list and went on to be translated into 44 languages. A clever, if somewhat soapy, retelling of the Dracula myth, The Historian flattered its readers with its aura of academic seriousness and set the stage for the current wave of vampire chic.

Kostova's new novel, The Swan Thieves, keeps the gothic motif going with its themes of art, madness and obsession. It's another historical thriller (of sorts) which swaps the eastern Europe of Vlad the Impaler for 19th-century Paris and the birth of impressionism.

The set-up is intriguing. An acclaimed artist, Robert Oliver, has been arrested for attacking a painting in the National Gallery in Washington DC, a version of the myth of Leda, the Queen of Sparta, in which Zeus took on the form of a swan to rape her. Oliver is committed to an upmarket private institution where he comes under the care of Dr Andrew Marlow, himself an aspiring painter, who is especially good at working with difficult and creative patients. Marlow is said to be able to "get a stone to talk", but he only manages to elicit a few initial words from Oliver, who then goes completely silent.

The rest of the novel is taken up with Marlow's quest for information about Oliver's past. Back and forth across America and the Atlantic he goes, in search of the artist's former wife, his lover, his paintings and colleagues, looking for facts to unlock his mind and reveal not only why he attacked the painting but why he continues to paint over and over, from memory, a mysterious, dark-haired woman.

The novel's historical element is introduced through translations of old letters Oliver let Marlow see before he went silent. These turn out to be the increasingly intimate correspondence of two minor 19th-century impressionist painters, Olivier Vignot and Beatrice de Clerval. How did the letters get into Oliver's hands? And is there a link between them and the mysterious beauty of his paintings?

Slowly, the answers become clear. But it takes almost 600 pages and too often Kostova's unnecessary attention to detail overwhelms the story: an account of an otherwise irrelevant summer painting school where Oliver first encountered his lover, Mary, spans nearly 80 pages. This wouldn't matter if we cared more for Oliver and his problems, but while his silence makes him an intriguing patient, it makes him a less than compelling fictional character. Despite being set in a psychiatric hospital and narrated by a shrink, the novel never takes us far enough inside the artist's head for us to feel terribly interested in his psyche.

It might have helped if Kostova had given Oliver the chance to tell his own story. Instead he is the sum of others' accounts of him - and these accounts are monumentally unflattering. In fact, the novel often reads like a study of the male creative ego and its complacently assumed right to indulge itself whatever the effect on those who love and support it. But Kostova doesn't properly question this. Instead, she romanticises art and artists.

Interestingly, Kostova writes about the past with more assurance than she does about the present: the letters between the impressionist artists are the best part of the book. But Marlow's task lacks the urgency to keep us interested and the revelations, when they eventually come, fall desperately flat.

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