The Swan Thieves is an intriguing story of art and obsession. Its starting point is the attack on a 19th century painting hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The attacker, Robert Oliver, is a brilliant painter suffering from a psychosis. He is hospitalized under the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow who is also an artist. Oliver refuses to explain his reason for the attack and, in an attempt to gain his trust, Marlow tells him that he need not speak if he doesn’t want to. Oliver takes him at his word and retreats into silence as he obsessively paints the same beautiful woman in 19th century clothing, over and over.
The story is told from shifting points of view – Marlow’s, and Oliver’s wife as well as his lover. It is Marlow, though, who drives the story in his obsessive attempt to understand what brought Robert Oliver to this point, at times stepping far beyond the boundaries of a normal doctor-patient relationship. Oliver does not have a voice in the story because he refuses to speak. Interwoven through the novel are letters between two 19th century painters, Beatrice de Clerval, a promising young artist, and her mentor, Olivier Vignot, her husband’s uncle. The descriptions of paintings are so vivid that I tried to discover if the 19th century artists and their works, at least, existed.
Reviews of The Swan Thieves are generally not complimentary, perhaps because reviewers were expecting something similar to The Historian, Kostova’s debut book. But I was enthralled and found the mysteries of why Oliver obsessively painted the same woman and the relationship of the 19th century painters to the present more than enough to keep me reading.