Sunday, April 4, 2010

Review of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

From The New York Times --

Fiction Chronicle --

By Jan Stuart --
Published: March 11, 2010 --

By Elizabeth Kostova.
Little, Brown, $26.99.

Writing novels about artists and their creative urges is as thorny as making biopics about writers and the interior process of putting words on a page. Such is the lesson of this stultifying romantic why-dunit from the author of “The Historian,” in which a psychiatrist (regrettably) named Marlow takes on the puzzling case of an artist arrested for attempting to slash a painting in the National Gallery of Art. Was it professional jealousy or a crime of passion? Violating every professional boundary in pursuit of an answer, Marlow proves a perfect match for his felonious patient, Robert Oliver, a ­commitment-challenged flake with a penchant for women who gravitate toward any wall within head-banging distance. Among them are Oliver’s ex-wife, Kate, and ex-lover, Mary, who provide two of the several narrative voices, which range in style from 19th-century epistolary to the sort of robotic art commentary suggestive of a tour guide tethered for life to the French Impressionist wing. Almost every­one in Kostova’s insular universe is a painter or a collector, and they have much to say about the books’ fictive canvases, variously described over the course of 500-plus pages as “incredible,” “extraordinary,” “remarkable” and “superb.” Absorbing so much blather about paintings you’ll never see is like slogging through a scrapbook of social columns recounting parties to which you’ve never been invited.

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