“The Swan Thieves: A Novel”
By Elizabeth KostovaLittle, Brown, 576 pp., $26.99
It begins quietly, with a woman walking down a French country lane in 1895, her arms cradling a bundle. Her figure catches the attention of an artist observing the snowy scene, and he adds her to his canvas: "Now she is frozen in her haste. She is a real woman, and now she is a painting."
The scene shifts to 1999, when Andrew Marlow, psychiatrist at a residential facility in Washington, D.C., gets a call from a colleague asking him to admit a man who has just tried to slash a painting in the National Gallery. Robert Oliver is a well-known artist with a history of psychiatric problems, and the colleague thinks that Marlow, a serious amateur painter, is best equipped to treat him.
It won't be easy, since Robert has virtually stopped talking, though he does tell Marlow at their first meeting, "I did it for her…for the woman I loved." Is this the dark-haired woman whose portrait Marlow observes in Robert's sketchbook? The artist won't speak at all now, but he gives Marlow a packet of old letters the psychiatrist has seen him reading and rereading.
Marlow then goes to the National Gallery to see the painting Robert menaced: Leda, an 1879 work by French artist Gilbert Thomas depicting the mythical scene of her attack by Zeus in the form of a swan. The psychiatrist notices a young woman as fascinated by Leda as he is, and after taking a stroll through the Impressionist galleries (where alert readers will be struck by his description of a Sisley landscape recalling the 1895 scene that opens the novel) he sees her again, waiting at a bus stop outside the museum.
We are scarcely 50 pages into her story, but Kostova has boldly laid out every plot thread that will be followed through the next 500 pages. The dark-haired woman, Marlow learns when he goes to see Robert's ex-wife Kate, inspired countless paintings, and the artist's obsession with her destroyed their marriage. Kate believes the woman is Mary Bertison, whose letters to Robert she found in his studio.
We know there's more to it than that, because interspersed with Marlow's and Kate's recollections are the letters Robert gave him. Exchanged in the late 1870s between a Frenchwoman named Beatrice de Clerval and her husband's uncle, Olivier Vignot, the letters chronicle Beatrice's growing love for the older man who encourages her painting; Gilbert Thomas makes brief, vaguely sinister appearance in them. It should come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention that Marlow eventually finds the real-life subject of Robert's fixation at the Metropolitan Museum, in a painting entitled Portrait of Beatrice de Clerval by Olivier Vignot.
This might seem rather schematic, outrageously so when Marlow meets Robert's lover Mary and recognizes the young woman he glimpsed in front of Leda at the National Gallery. Kostova takes big risks in her leisurely narrative, which interweaves multiple time frames to unfold revelations that many readers will have anticipated. Those revelations are not the primary purpose of a text that explores, but does not presume to resolve, the enigmas of artistic and personal commitment.
Why is Robert consumed with the need to avenge a crime against a woman who died before he was born, a crime that Beatrice herself exorcised in one final masterpiece (the canvas that gives the book its title) before giving up painting forever, apparently without regret? What is it about Robert that drives Marlow to break innumerable rules of professional conduct (including falling in love with Mary) and traverse three continents to free him from his obsession? We can only guess at the answers to those questions. "Many things are never explained," says the elderly man who allows Marlow to see The Swan Thieves, hidden away since Beatrice completed it. "When you are my age you will see that ultimately it does not matter."
The author takes care to enfold this autumnal wisdom in a bravura wrap-up to her intricately plotted puzzle via the discovery of a long-lost letter. This is fiction, after all: we demand at least some of the satisfaction we rarely get from real life, and Kostova generously provides it. It's nice to get a last paragraph from Marlow ten years on, telling us that he and Robert have both found fulfillment in the wake of their encounter with Beatrice. But it's entirely appropriate that the novel closes back in 1895 with Alfred Sisley signing the painting that first thrust us into her story, which reminds us that the mysteries of love and art can never truly be solved.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940" and a frequent book-reviewer.