Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Swan Thieves

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Swan Thieves

Article excerpt

An artist's attack on a painting in the National Gallery is linked to the story of a 19th-century Impressionist painter.

In her wildly successful debut novel, "The Historian," Elizabeth

Kostova wrote the tale of a girl and her father searching for a

legendary vampire.

We seem to have hit saturation point for the sharp-fanged ones

during the four years since her debut, so this time around Kostova

abandons Dracula for something truly terrifying. No, not zombies or

werewolves. (They're too busy hanging out in the romance section or

starring in Jane Austen mash-ups.) This time, Kostova's characters

are hunting for... an Impressionist painter.

The Swan Thieves opens when a renowned artist attacks a painting of

"Leda and the Swan" in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Robert Oliver is transferred to a pricey facility under the care of a

psychiatrist who dabbles in art, where he obsessively paints

portraits of a dark-eyed woman and rereads letters in French.

The psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, is stymied in his efforts to

discover what caused Robert to try to take a knife to the canvas by

the fact that Robert refuses to say a word after his first day at

Goldengrove. And also by the fact that Marlow is a self- satisfied


Here's Marlow on an ex-girlfriend whom he hires to translate

Oliver's letters: "[W]e've remained good friends, especially

since I didn't feel strongly enough about her to regret her

terminating our relationship." (He also quickly points out that

she's aged since they broke up.) He wonders if Robert sees himself

as the dark-eyed woman. "Naturally, I conjectured that the image

might be an expression of his silent rage, and I also speculated

about some possible confusion of gender identity within the patient,

although I couldn't get him to respond even nonverbally to

questions on this topic." Later, he deplores Robert's taste in

police thrillers. "I could only hope that he wasn't acquiring any

further taste for violence, from tales of murder, although I saw no

signs of it." (Marlow, of course, listens to classical music and

refers to taking a nap outside as sleeping "en plain air.")

Marlow reminded me so much of Lockwood, the narrator of "Wuthering

Heights" that I kept waiting for his judgments to be revealed as

gloriously unreliable. …

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