If you are one of the 1.5 million people who have read Kostova's mega-hit debut The Historian, you already know the depths at which she can take you with her long-winded, magical story-telling. Kostova is famous for her slow, methodical building of a mystery, her meandering but beautiful prose, and her use of letters to allow the reader a peek into history. It is no wonder that the release of her second novel, The Swan Thieves, she had the literary and blogging communities in a dither (including moi).
She takes a decidedly more gentle tact this time around. Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist who is also an accomplished artist. For this reason, Marlow is assigned to take on the care of famous artist Robert Oliver, who brutally attacked a painting in National Gallery, then proceeded to become mute once institutionalized. Marlow becomes almost obsessed with the mystery behind Oliver's silence, and begins to investigate and interview important individuals in Oliver's life, specifically his ex-wife and his girlfriend. He also discovers letters in Oliver's possession from 19th century France between a beautiful young painter, Beatrice de Clerval, and her uncle Olivier Vignot. Through narration from each of these individuals, we are plunged into their stories. Oliver's wife's frustration with her husband's eccentric ways. Oliver's girlfriend's desperation in finding a first love with someone just out of reach. Romantic and yet forbidden love between Beatrice and Olivier. And at the heart of each story is the sweeping, grand love of creating art on the canvas.
I have very conflicting emotions about this novel. I really cannot deny the beauty and fragility and complexity of this story. It is one where you are immersed in the journey. I fell in love with Beatrice and her uncle Olivier. My heart skipped a beat when I reached those parts of the story where we learned about them.
And while his character development was vivid, I did NOT like Robert Oliver. At all. Was I supposed to like a man whose romantic but juvenile obsession destroyed the lives of everyone who loved him? Was I supposed to be endeared by his undependability, his slobby habits, and his madness? I became highly annoyed by his antics, his self-absorption and selfishness, and didn't feel that it could (or should) be chalked up to an artist's creative spirit and dismissed.
I also was not invested in Andrew Marlow either. He seemed rather dull and plodding. I did, however, truly enjoy hearing from Oliver's ex-wife Kate and girlfriend Mary. They were both strong and interesting female characters, and combined with the strength of Beatrice, were truly pillars that supported the entire plot.
While listening to this novel on audio, my impression was that it seemed very gentle, wandering and dreamlike (like an Impressionist painting?). Maybe too gentle. It was an engaging story, but had I been in a less tolerant mood, I might have been a little bored and wondering when we were going to get to the point already. One of Kostova's trademarks is her ability to go on, and we all know this going into it, but it could have benefited from a couple hundred less pages.
From an audio standpoint, we were treated with a multi-narrator production, which will rarely let you down. Some of my best audio experiences have resulted because of multiple narrators. In this situation, we had voices for Marlow, Kate, Mary, Beatrice and Olivier, and was extremely entertaining.
Have you read either of Kostova's novels? What were your impressions?
3.5 out of 5 stars