A talented artist has just been arrested for trying to attack a painting in the National Gallery of Art. Dr. Andrew Marlow gets a referral from a friend to treat him; Marlow is particularly intrigued by the case because he is an amateur artist himself. Robert Oliver speaks briefly at their first meeting, saying he “did it for her,” and after telling Marlow he can “speak to anybody he wants,” Oliver refuses to speak anymore.
Marlow can’t shake the case from his mind. He regularly visits Oliver in the psychiatric hospital but can’t get him to talk anymore. Puzzling over the mystery of why Oliver attacked a painting — called Leda, based on the Greek myth of a mortal woman being visited (and subsequently ravished) by Zeus in the form of a swan — Marlow finds himself going to unusual lengths to solve it, visiting Oliver’s ex-wife and former lover.
The Swan Thieves alternates between the stories of Marlow and Oliver’s ex-wife and lover, interspersed with letters written in 1879 between a talented young artist who has a link to the painting Oliver attacked and her husband’s artist uncle. It becomes clearer that this young French woman is somehow at the center of Oliver’s obsession, but the deeper mystery is — how?
Elizabeth Kostova shows in her second novel the same attention to detail that she exhibited in her debut novel, The Historian, with a similar but less grand sweep of time and place (here, eras toggle between 1879 and 1999 and locations between the East Coast of the United States and France). The characters are sympathetic, first-person narrated, and have similar pieces missing in their lives that keep them from being completely happy.
My only complaint is that after reading The Historian, I was so in the mood for another Gothic, mysterious, somewhat supernatural tale, and this one was mysterious and dark but not supernatural. Bummer. But to be fair, leaving The Swan Thieves to stand on its own merits, the latter is a well-wrought, absorbing story.
Rated: Mild, for some mild and moderate language, but not much. Sexual references are brief and mild, with one stronger reference to genitalia. There are also instances of adultery.