As a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society Review (in print and online at www.historicalnovelsociety.org), I sometimes get really lucky and receive a great book that is more than just fun to read, it's a truly literary experience. That's the way I felt about Elizabeth Kostova's latest novel, The Swan Thieves, and this is what I wrote about it earlier this year for the HNS Review:
An enchanting story and a deeply human experience. At the end of it, one feels compelled to paint, or write, sing or make music, or simply live with greater intensity. The crisis of mind—and soul—of a famous artist that begins the story leads the narrator, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, on the reluctant hero’s journey as he unravels the haunting obsession that has caused his patient to attack a painting with a knife. Kostova deftly weaves two stories of love and art from the Impressionist era in Paris to contemporary rural Maine and New York. The larger-than-life figure of Robert Oliver, the artist-patient, looms over the narratives of the women who have loved him and the doctor who is determined to free him from the silent cage he has chosen to inhabit.
Kostova’s writing is always good, and sometimes exquisite. Here’s a sentence describing how Andrew feels upon seeing his 90-year-old father for the first time in a few years: “When I saw him waiting for me in his good summer clothes…I felt as always both his reality and the thin air that would one day replace him.” She uses letters, narrative, dialogue and exposition with ease. The story is weighty, and moves slowly, thoughtfully—not a book to rush through, but to savor and ponder as you read it.There is a little unsteadiness in the plot. The fortuitous connections seem just a touch too easy, and the last chapters almost rush to the conclusion. But these are minor issues compared to the over-arching quality of the writing and the humanity of the characters. The Swan Thieves is a deeply involving story, and one that will resonate for a long time after you’ve closed the book, like the sound of a very old church bell at dusk.