This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
In spite of my flagrant disdain for anything Stephenie Meyer has conceived with a pen, American author Elizabeth Kostova is probably the only living author wherein I am willing to view the classic figures of the undead world with modern lens. It is through her debut novel, The Historian. I’d like to note that one of my problems with Meyer lies in her fluffing the undead, rather than the undead themselves. After all, two of my favourite works of classic literature is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I like the former for its exploration of human engineering — a value much maligned by my religious upbringing — and remember being thrilled when finding a copy of the 1818 text in a used bookstore in Singapore. I also like the latter, because of the unrelenting imagery of the horror novel it is, while also fascinating. Edgar Allen Poe, too. Whether or not they were immediate sensations during their times of release would hold for an entirely different dialogue, and to be fair, it does open a similar question to the Twilight saga.
Five years after the release of her first novel of The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova reveals her second novel in the beginning of the year 2010. I generally enjoyed Kostova’s first project, and was thrilled to hear that The Swan Thieves does not neglect the inclusion of various formulae apparent in The Historian. It also spotlights art, one of my passions. Instead of fraternising with the lore of Count Dracula, The Swan Thieves tackles another type of immortality: the timelessness behind certain works of art and one man’s obsession with painted beauty.
Psychiatrist and painting hobbyist Dr. Andrew Marlow is an ageing bachelor during the time he receives an unusual case from his colleague, Dr. John Garcia. Marlow, who admits having admiration for Garcia aside from working alongside each other in Goldengrove, is slightly puzzled when Garcia defers the case to his care. According to Garcia, it is due to a creative commonality between he and the patient. The patient is Robert Oliver, a well-known artist recently arrested for attacking a painting with a knife in the National Gallery of Art. When apprehended, he is cooperative with authorities, even so when admitted to Goldengrove. No formal charges were to be made for his outburst, because there is no evidence of harboured intentions to cause bodily harm. However, Oliver remains under the care of Goldengrove. Brutishly and silent, it is clear something is amiss, and in order to repair his mental state, Marlow needs to deduce the motive behind such an unusual interlude.
Up until this point, Marlow has long been accustomed to a life in which he is in control. He is successful in his medical profession, can coax conversation from a stone, and is able to provide himself regular intervals in which he can devote to painting. He confesses to being a naturally atheistic product of two religious parents, an individual who gravitates to the visibility of science and fortunate to have their approval. One cannot deny his life is blessed with order. But the price of such a balance is the tell-tale isolation that is often associated with artists, a path that paves the way so easily to loneliness. Marlow admits his bachelorhood no longer appears to be any more glaring a reality to him than any other day. Instead of single, he considers himself unmarried.
The painting in which Oliver is standing near when he is arrested is “Leda” by Gilbert Thomas. Leda encounters the Greek god Zeus, who pursues her in the form of a swan, and the painting is a traditionalist depiction of their sexual encounter. Although Garcia does not bother to make further enquiries about the details of the painting that had been attacked, Marlow’s attention quickly diverts to Thomas’ work, studying it during a visit to the National Gallery of Art, in order to pick up a clue or two from subtle hints of its history.
Marlow’s increasing curiosity — and later, attachment — towards the case moves him away from his sensible life and onto a mission to give Oliver the chance of another shot at his own. Retrieving old letters written in French from Oliver, Marlow reads of an affair and later blackmailing incident between young Impressionist painter Béatrice de Clerval and her husband’s uncle, Olivier Vignot. He loses himself in a world of languages, translations, art works, painting techniques, and the anguish of those who know and knew Oliver in order to grant him a voice to quench his silence. Granting Oliver his much-needed gift would eventually be reciprocated, and Marlow is presented with a new order to his own life, an opportunity he would never think to ever be within his reach.
The Swan Thieves is almost six hundred pages thick, and the two stories felt so disconnected they may as well have been entirely separate novels. As much as I respect Elizabeth Kostova as a writer, I am sad to report that I reached the back cover unsatisfied.
The modern tale involving Dr. Andrew Marlow and crew far outweighs the thought given to the olden written correspondence outlining the affair between young Béatrice de Clerval and treacherous Olivier Vignot. A pity, because the two stories individually hold much potential as concepts. However, the failure to launch is not foreign in Kostova’s works. A grand plot build-up leading to a botched ending is a complaint I commonly hear, and the written substance that is supposed to hold The Swan Thieves together leaves a bit to be desired.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad. What Kostova lacks in the weight of words compensates in the beautiful tapestry that is her construction of fictional souls. Character-wise, Kostova outlined figures almost as three-dimensional as what is said of Robert Oliver’s paintings. Dr. Andrew Marlow is shaped in my head to be an attractive man who is seasoned just perfectly by the events of his life. Robert Oliver manifests as a towering — godly, almost — yet damaged soul, his curls almost swaying with life whenever his character is mentioned. Kate, Oliver’s former wife is far slighter in stature than Oliver himself, yet is much more composed in spite of the anguish bestowed upon her by the failing mind of her then husband. On the other hand, Mary Bertison, the flame-haired “other woman”, gives off the impression as overwhelmingly beautiful, but still betrays indications of being previously broken by something — or someone. I wasn’t able to form a clear picture of Béatrice de Clerval or of Olivier Vignot. But, between Dr. Andrew Marlow and Robert Oliver, Oliver is the more physically imposing figure. For Kate Oliver and Mary Bertison, Bertison takes the feminine counterpart of Oliver’s title.
Having said that, I can’t help but notice how it is the characters that resemble the elevated human image often depicted in art who hold so much pain, whereas the ones who appear to deviate from that ideal are the ones who appear to have adjusted to their respective circumstances. This is not to say the ones who at greater peace with their situations have lost less. All of the major characters in The Swan Thieves, to a certain degree, are victims of theft in their own right. It is much like how Zeus — a character not particularly known for asking permission from anyone — has his way with Leda. Ironically, when the case gets solved, it is revealed that Zeus is not the source of Oliver’s rage.
For those who enjoy Kostova’s previous work, The Swan Thieves has the potential to disappoint. Kostova manages to put together a great story with her second novel, and create almost tactile characters, aspects almost appropriate enough to compensate. Though falling short in its execution, it encourages the reader to delve into the parallel stories and immerse themselves in the gripping power art that lies beyond the painted surface.