Monday, July 19, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating 4/5

This is a book about painting, and painters, and it needs - and deserves - a painter's patience to read. I don't know how many times I found myself having read two or three long paragraphs and then realizing my mind had wandered and I hadn't absorbed anything I'd just read. It was always necessary to go back and re-read what I'd missed, so I could follow along with what was happening next. This is to say, it's a long-winded and exquisitely described narrative, but I don't think it could've been done any other way.

The man the story revolves around, Robert Oliver, is a painter who winds up in a psychiatric facility after attempting to attack a painting at a museum. For some strange reason, his diagnosis (obviously bipolar disorder) is never explicitly mentioned - it seems like Kostova has purposefully avoided it even in places where it would've been natural to say the words. The only reason I can think of for this is that she believes "bipolar disorder" might bring up some false or misleading impression/stigma/prejudice by the reader against her character.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and each has been written well. Oliver is haunted by a woman he saw in a painting, but it is Oliver himself who haunts the pages of this book, despite the fact that he speaks perhaps four sentences in his own voice throughout. The rest of his character is depicted by those who knew him. He has a profound effect on these people, and on the reader.

This is a long, but ultimately satisfying novel, inspired by art and written in a way that mimics an epic painting. The descriptions of people and places and things are delicate and thorough, which sometimes becomes tiresome. Reading this book with patience is like studying each brush stroke of a masterpiece. Some people aren't into that, and some people (like me) can get into it after they realize the rewards.

I found this book to be less compelling than Kostova's first novel, The Historian, but still a very worthwhile read.

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