Any second novel would have had a hard time competing with the success of Elizabeth Kostova’s New York Times bestselling debut, The Historian. But the choice of subject matter alone makes The Swan Thieves disappointing: It trades Historian’s eerie vampire story for a 560-page novel focused on French impressionist art. The narrative follows psychiatrist Andrew Marlow as he tries to unravel the mystery of why successful painter Robert Oliver tried to attack a museum piece, and landed in Marlow’s institution. But while Marlow often talks about his love of Sherlock Holmes, he’s a terrible detective.
As with The Historian, Kostova reveals part of the story through letters from the past. In The Swan Thieves, these take the form of correspondence between two French painters from the late 19th century, which Oliver reads obsessively. The letters are interspersed throughout the text as they’re slowly translated for Marlow, but he ignores the clues they contain. Instead, he spends his time traveling around the country—and eventually, the world—interviewing people who knew Oliver, sometimes as a psychiatrist, and sometimes under false pretenses. Simply looking up the names of the people who signed the letters would have revealed huge insights he doesn’t stumble upon until hundreds of pages later. He seems to suffer as a character to suit Kostova’s desire to stretch the narrative.
The prose is undeniably beautiful. It’s never entirely linear, as the action is interspersed with the narrators’ musings on art, aging, loss, and loneliness. While most of the narrative belongs to Marlow, Oliver’s wife and his young lover get their own chapters as they share their experience living with the unstable genius. Their world is populated by dedicated painters and affable academics who casually chat about Plato over games of chess. The modern action parallels the events surrounding the letter-writers, unfolding a story about a young female painter in love with her husband’s uncle.
Kostova clearly did her research, richly painting images of famous and lesser-known works of art, and the settings that inspired them. But overall, the story just isn’t gripping. It feels overstuffed with description and underdeveloped in terms of plot. It’s a mystery without suspense.
The most compelling storytelling comes from the events in the distant past. But even the fates of those long-dead characters are so heavily hinted at that the final reveal simply provides details to flesh out a telegraphed conclusion. The denouement that follows is even more frustrating, managing to undermine the plot and deny the seriousness of mental illness. Hopefully, Kostova will take this work as a learning experience and get the opportunity to produce a worthier successor to her debut.