A psychiatrist unravels mysteries of love and art in Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Swan Thieves’

September 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 15, 2014

The Swan Thieves, the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, is the understated tale of the intertwined lives of a psychiatrist, a painter who comes under his care, and the 19th-century Frenchwoman with whom the painter has become obsessed over the years.

I described one of the characters just now as “a painter,” but in fact, all of the main characters paint: Dr. Andrew Marlow; the almost completely silent patient, who is named Robert Oliver;  Mary Bertison, Oliver’s lover; and the key 19th-century characters, Béatrice de Clerval Vignot and her husband’s uncle, Olivier Vignot. Only Oliver works as a professional artist; Marlow and the rest are essentially amateurs of varying talents and dedication. (Bertison makes a living as an art instructor.)

In this 2010 novel, Kostova mainly spins her tale through the reminiscences of Marlow, the doctor; an unpublished memoir written by Bertison; the people whom Marlow interviews in his quest to understand his patient’s derangement; and letters exchanged by Béatrice and Olivier. A few segments, evidently imagined and written down by Marlow, portray some events from Béatrice’s point of view.

Throughout the narrative, which spans 561 pages, Kostova teases out several mysteries: What dark obsession motivates Oliver? Why did Oliver attack a painting in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.? How have history and other forces conspired to obscure Béatrice’s artwork?

To answer these questions, Marlow undertakes a quest that lasts months and sends him to rural Virginia, the Mexican resort city of Acapulco, and Paris and its environs. He delves into the life histories of Oliver, of Oliver’s ex-wife and former lover, and of Béatrice and the people in her orbit. Eventually, he uncovers some links — one of whom is living — between the 19th and 21st centuries.

Here, the doctor meets with his patient’s former wife:

Her eyebrows rose over her coffee cup; she took a sip. Those eyebrows were a darker sand than her hair, feathered as if painted by — I tried to think what portraitist they reminded me of, what number brush I would have used. Her forehead was broad and fine under the glinting wave of hair. “He hasn’t spoken to you even once?”

“The first day,” I admitted. “He acknowledged what he’d done in the museum and then he said I could talk with anyone I wanted to.” I decided to omit — for now, at least — his having said that I could even talk with “Mary.” I hoped Mrs. Oliver might eventually tell me whom he’d meant by that, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to ask. “But he hasn’t spoken since then. I’m sure you’ll understand that talking is one of the only ways he can let go of what’s troubling him, and one of the only ways we can figure out what triggers make his condition worse.”

I looked hard at her, but she didn’t help me with even a nod.

I tried to compensate with reasonable friendliness. “I can continue to manage his medications, but we can’t work on much unless he’ll talk, because I can’t know exactly how the medications help him. I’ve sent him to both individual and group therapy, but he doesn’t speak there either, and he’s stopped going. If he won’t talk, then I need to be able to talk to him myself with some sense of what might be troubling him.”

Kostova draws the disparate threads together in satisfying fashion, but the book is mannered — formal and stiff, much like Marlow himself. (When his story begins, it is the spring of 1999, and the doctor is an aging bachelor whose only living relative is his elderly father.) The action is set in motion by a referral from a fellow psychiatrist and friend, and furthered by the text of Béatrice’s letters, which Marlow asks another friend to translate, but in truth it’s hard to imagine the reserved and distant Marlow hanging around with a pal or doing anything in casual fashion.

I enjoyed The Swan Thieves, but reading it required a certain degree of discipline and patience. Lovers of art, or those enamored with 19th-century Paris, may derive more pleasure from Kostova’s work than did I.

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