The swan thieves is a novel by Robert Oliver who is an acclaimed contemporary artist- a painter on the cusp of fame. He has been hospitalized in the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, accused of attacking “Leda and the Swan,” a painting from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life.
We came to know all in the first half of the novel. Cut to the chase: the second half of the novel takes up Marlow’s trawl through Oliver’s past. Up and down the East Coast, he goes in search of the artist’s former wife, lover, paintings, and colleagues in a search for the truth that will unlock Oliver’s mind and reveal all to any reader who has the stamina to make it past the book’s labored first half.
He sets out to discover the motivation of Oliver’s attack, a task complicated by Oliver’s refusal to speak. As the investigation leads to Oliver’s ex-wife and his girlfriend, Marlow begins to transgress the ethical boundaries of his profession. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.
Some of the chapters are told from the point of view of other characters: Kate, Oliver’s dutiful and conflicted ex-wife, and Mary, his former lover. But we only know this because of the chapter headings: They all sound identical. Kostova’s characters never achieve natural psychological vividness, most remaining at the level of plot device, the dutiful and conflicted ex-wife, the elderly father is doing just what you’d expect, no more, less.
Kostova’s masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from the late 19th century to the late 20th, from young love to last love. The Swan Thieves is a story of obsession, history’s losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope.