A famous artist tries to destroy a painting at the National Gallery; an expert is called in to solve the mystery – sound like the opening of a Dan Brown thriller? Welcome to Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves – a world of French Impressionist artists, an obsession with an obscure and talented nineteenth century woman, and a complicated mystery sprinkled with romance and envy. From the beginning, Kostova demands your attention with the crime and the crazed artist, then keeps you in suspense as she backtracks to fill in the blanks.
Kostova has done her homework, and has the past intersecting with the present. Real artists of the nineteenth century provided the collage for the fictional Beatrice: Marie Bracquemond, whose career is cut short by a disapproving husband, and Eve Gonzales, who dies young. Letters from long-dead Beatrice de Clerval reveal the Impressionist era as it was just beginning to take hold in the late 1800’s. Matisse, Monet, and Sisal are her contemporaries, and women artists are rare. Women of that era could not leave home unchaperoned.
The story revolves around Robert Oliver, a talented and eccentric artist with an Impressionist style, who vacillates between an inspired life and one on the brink of madness. His psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, also a painter, obsessively follows clues from New York to North Carolina to Paris, trying to uncover the reason for Oliver’s morose depression, his obsession with a beautiful dead artist, and the reason Oliver defaced a painting in the National Gallery. Along the way, Marlow meets Kate, Olivers’s wife, and Mary, Oliver’s student and lover. In an uncharacteristically unprofessional twist, Marlowe falls for Mary, and Kostova cites this as the reason for camouflaging the true identities of the artists. Nice effect, but it’s all fiction anyway.
The characters – all artists – seem to meld together, after a while, but following Marlow through the museums is as satisfying as following the action to discover the resolution to the mystery. Kostova takes you through rooms at the National Gallery of Art and the d’Orsay, and you can vicariously enjoy familiar pieces.
If you avoided The Historian, Kostova’s first novel, for the length – 656 pages, take heart, this one is shorter – only 564 – but they go quickly. The topic of great art is much different from Count Dracula, but you’ll still fall under the spell.