The Swan Thieves

An artist’s attack on a painting in the National Gallery is linked to the story of a 19th-century Impressionist painter.

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    The Swan Thieves
    By Elizabeth Kostova
    Little, Brown
    576 pages, $26.99
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In her wildly successful debut novel, “The Historian,” Elizabeth Kostova wrote the tale of a girl and her father searching for a legendary vampire.

We seem to have hit saturation point for the sharp-fanged ones during the four years since her debut, so this time around Kostova abandons Dracula for something truly terrifying. No, not zombies or werewolves. (They’re too busy hanging out in the romance section or starring in Jane Austen mash-ups.) This time, Kostova’s characters are hunting for... an Impressionist painter.

The Swan Thieves opens when a renowned artist attacks a painting of “Leda and the Swan” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Robert Oliver is transferred to a pricey facility under the care of a psychiatrist who dabbles in art, where he obsessively paints portraits of a dark-eyed woman and rereads letters in French.

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The psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, is stymied in his efforts to discover what caused Robert to try to take a knife to the canvas by the fact that Robert refuses to say a word after his first day at Goldengrove. And also by the fact that Marlow is a self-satisfied prig.

Here’s Marlow on an ex-girlfriend whom he hires to translate Oliver’s letters: “[W]e’ve remained good friends, especially since I didn’t feel strongly enough about her to regret her terminating our relationship.” (He also quickly points out that she’s aged since they broke up.) He wonders if Robert sees himself as the dark-eyed woman. “Naturally, I conjectured that the image might be an expression of his silent rage, and I also speculated about some possible confusion of gender identity within the patient, although I couldn’t get him to respond even nonverbally to questions on this topic.” Later, he deplores Robert’s taste in police thrillers. “I could only hope that he wasn’t acquiring any further taste for violence, from tales of murder, although I saw no signs of it.” (Marlow, of course, listens to classical music and refers to taking a nap outside as sleeping “en plain air.”)

Marlow reminded me so much of Lockwood, the narrator of “Wuthering Heights” that I kept waiting for his judgments to be revealed as gloriously unreliable. Unfortunately, Kostova doesn’t seem aware that her narrator’s smugness is an irritant, and a reader is supposed to root for him as he violates his professional ethics at various turns and lusts after the women in Robert life. “[Y]ou could get a stone to talk,” one character gushes.

Robert, at first, seems immune to Marlow’s “charms,” which I took as a point in his favor. But it turns out that his silence is just a plot device to heighten the mystery surrounding his attack on the painting – and it disappears the instant that mystery is resolved. (The two-page denouement is so abrupt, I read it several times to be sure I wasn’t missing something.)

Actually, neither Marlow’s nor Robert’s actions make much sense outside the novel – they merely serve the plot. (This was a problem for me with “The Historian,” as well: If Dracula murderously guards his privacy, why is he running a demonic book-of-the-month club?) And both novels suffer from long sections that are, frankly, a slog to get through. Kostova can be a lovely writer – I wish her editor would help her with pacing.

The good news is that the most tedious section of “The Swan Thieves” occurs at the beginning: If readers can make it past that, they should be fine. After that, Marlow’s narration is broken up with the translated letters, which are between aspiring 19th-century painter Beatrice de Clerval and her uncle, Olivier Vignet, a member of the Paris salon. These letters – and Beatrice herself – are a high point of the novel. Marlow also interviews Robert’s ex-wife, Kate, and a former lover, Mary Bertison, who recount their doomed relationships with Robert. Whenever someone else gets a turn to narrate, “The Swan Thieves” becomes a much more enjoyable read. Kate, especially, is an appealing character, and her sections help bring her silent husband and the beginnings of his obsession to life.

Kostova’s fans are likely to enjoy “The Swan Thieves” – there’s lots of atmosphere and plenty of drama. But Dr. Marlow is not likely to win her new ones.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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