I am not going to claim that I’m truly up to snuff on my French these days – despite that sheepskin that says B.A. & French on it.  I had heretofore put it to so little use after graduation that much had been lost.  But then came not one, not two, not three, but four books my way in the past several months to narrate — all with a significant amount of French in them.  So I’ve been brushing the cobwebs off my college studies.   The most recent in this “French Series” for me is The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. 

The conceit of this book is interesting.  There is an artist who married another artist then had an affair with yet a third artist and became obsessed with a French artist from the 19th century who herself had an affair with another artist.  Our first artist goes a little nuts and receives care from a psychiatrist – our sixth artist – trying to unravel the mystery of that initial artist’s illness.  Get the drift?  Even the book’s title is a clear tip-off to the artistic design Ms. Kostova had when writing this book.

I think it’s all very clever indeed.  And the issues which are being explored in the book reverberate in and among the characters many times over so as not to be lost to the reader.  Ms. Kostova also goes to great lengths to explore the mind of an artist as her characters make their way through the story and their everyday lives – entering a room, having dinner on a restaurant patio, etc.  After all, each of her significant characters is an artist.  And there’s my only complaint: the reader is treated to so much minutiae about the colors, the light, the textures, etc. of everything around these characters over and over again because they are artists looking with an artist’s eye.  If this book were a movie, it would be breathtakingly beautiful or horrifyingly grotesque in it’s turn – and absolutely visually riveting.  As a novel, it moves very slowly.

Ms. Kostova has done some great character work, I think.  And the dialogue works well.  I don’t mind the back-and-forth points of view – each chapter declares at the beginning who is the narrator for that particular chapter.  If you like the cinematic treatment in written form, you’ll love the book.  If you’re an artist or aspiring artist, you’ll probably enjoy the care Ms. Kostova has taken to ensure her characters share what they see in the world around them and in the paintings they create, critique, and appreciate. 

Here is text from the book jacket:

Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, has brutally attacked a canvas in the National Gallery of Art.  What would compel an artist to destroy something he values beyond all else?  From the confines of his hospital room, Olive maintains a stubborn silence, offering only the briefest explanation before he stops speaking altogether: “I did it for her.”

But who is she?  Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow prides himself on his ability to make even a stone talk, but he gets nowhere with Oliver.  Driven at first by professional curiosity, and then by a determination that disrupts his ordered, careful world, Marlow embarks on an unconventional pursuit of the answers his patient won’t provide, and on a journey into the lives of the women Oliver left behind.

As these women paint a portrait of love, betrayal, and artistic obsession, Marlow is pulled deeper within the mind of a troubled genius.  Carefully braiding the strands of a life undone, he finds surprising possibilities in a package of century-old love letters.  The voices in these letters soon tell their own story, one of secret passions and heartbreaking treachery, and they bring France of the late 1800’s blazingly alive.  Does the key to unlock the mystery lie in a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism?

Richly told, beautifully imagined, The Swan Thieves takes us across centuries, from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from young love to last love.  Elizabeth Kostova deftly explores the Painter’s universe – passion, creativity, secrets, madness – and, with the gift for storytelling that made The Historian an international sensation, conjures a world that lingers long after the final page has turned.

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