Saturday, June 27, 2015

THE SWAN THIEVES by Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova

            Renowned painter Robert Oliver was arrested after he pulled out a pocket knife in the National Gallery, lunged to slash a painting hanging on the gallery wall, and assaulted the security guard who prevented his attack from succeeding. Oliver ended up in a psychiatric facility under the care of Dr. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist who himself is a painter.

            Other than a few initial words, Oliver paints but does not speak, forcing Dr. Marlow to become creative in his attempt to help Oliver. Through Dr. Marlow’s detective work, Robert Oliver’s backstory is revealed to us. From some old French letters with which Oliver is obsessed, we also learn about the life of Beatrice de Clerval, a 19th century young French woman who was a gifted painter working at the time of the great Impressionists. How do the pieces of Oliver’s life fit together? Who is the mysterious woman Oliver paints over and over? What would drive this artistic genius to such a drastic act? As Marlow unravels the threads, past and present collide.

            I listened to The Swan Thieves on audiobook after listening to, and enjoying, the audiobook of Kostova’s first book, The Historian. Both audio recordings were done with “casts”, rather than one reader, which I enjoyed. The chapter names in The Swan Thieves, which identified which character was narrating, felt redundant on the audio, but undoubtedly would make sense on a true reading of the book.

            I absolutely loved The Swan Thieves. It is an engaging book that immerses you in the world of art, immerses you in Robert Oliver’s world – his work, his women, his world, his illness. We are treated to a picture of the artist. We are also immersed in Marlow’s world and are treated to the picture of another artist.

            I had expected twists and turns like those found in The Historian, but The Swan Thieves did not go there (which I found to be quite refreshing). Nonetheless, I found the book to have a very satisfying ending.

            Despite the passage of time since I finished this book, just thinking about it is enough to start me gravitating once again to Robert Oliver’s bright life and genius. This book is definitely one of my favorites.


THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian is Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, and it is a wonderful book. It is a historical thriller replete with mystery, adventure, and a touch of the other worldly. I listened to the audio recording of The Historian, made by a “cast” instead of just one reader. Although I enjoyed the audio, I wish that I had actually read the book, due in part to some of the names used and the complexities in the twists and turns of the plot.

            Certain academic historians were “given” an old book – each book was old and blank but for a wood cut of a dragon at the center. Each was somehow connected to Vlad the Impaler, who was also known as Dracula.

            A teenage girl found her father’s copy of this book, along with some letters. She confronted her father who then slowly told her his very long and convoluted story. His story involved his graduate advisor and mentor who went missing, the mentor’s story about his own book and research, and a young woman who joined the father in his search for the mentor. As the daughter also did her own research on Vlad, the book contains at least three levels, or time periods, of feverish searching for information about Vlad and for his remains.

            The history – and historical process – involved in The Historian is fascinating. And, it is not, in a sense, just one history, but rather involves a number of historical time periods. The book also references a number of historical places, as the story takes us into many countries, including England, Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries, and Turkey.

            The story is interesting and draws you in. Even though the plot, at times, feels like it may be a little “out there”, the many twists and turns keep you in the story.

            I loved the history. But, I also enjoyed the sense that I had an inside view of the historical process. The plot was complex and convoluted, and I was totally lost in this book. It was a wonderful experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Historian.