‘Swan Thieves’ is an art-filled, if not artful, novel

By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / January 12, 2010

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Elizabeth Kostova burst onto the pop literary scene in 2005 with “The Historian,’’ a fat and juicy historical novel that wove vampire lore into contemporary mystery with aplomb. Since then, fans have been drooling in anticipation of her next blockbuster pastiche. Such excitement may persuade the devoted to jump on her new work, “The Swan Thieves,’’ but despite some exquisite writing, the book itself is strangely lifeless and unlikely to win new converts.

Kostova employs many of the same devices in this second novel that she used in “The Historian.’’ Once again, letters from the past are interspersed with the current action and function as clues, and these letters also tie together alternating narratives. Both are historical mysteries, though in “The Swan Thieves’’ Kostova switches her focus from Eastern Europe to 19th-century France.

In the new book, the contemporary story focuses on an enigmatic, brilliant painter, Robert Oliver, who has been hospitalized after attempting to attack Gilbert Thomas’s painting “Leda’’ in the National Gallery in Washington. His attending psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlowe, is also an artist, and this connection prompts the doctor to learn all he can about his patient by interviewing those closest to him - and to make sense of Oliver’s most recent project, a series of paintings that all feature an intriguing dark-haired woman.

As part of his inquiry, Marlowe also studies some letters Oliver has been obsessively rereading, correspondence between two painters, a young woman and her husband’s uncle, from the 1870s. Their tragic, star-crossed story - involving both art and parenthood - may hold the key to mysteries past and present.

With the bulk of the narrative carried by the first-person monologues of Marlowe and the two main women in Oliver’s life, his ex-wife, Kate, and his discarded younger lover, Mary Bertison, voice is essential. Unfortunately, Kostova flubs two out of three.

Her Kate Oliver is a compelling narrator, believable as she relates her early courtship by the artist and her later disillusionment as she gives up her own painting to care for their children, losing his interest along the way. But Marlowe is wooden. An aging bachelor, he spends too much time dwelling on his waning attractiveness to younger women, which serves to set up the plot but feels inappropriately self-conscious. His sections provide necessary action, but without any real thrust. And when Mary makes her appearance, she has little to offer and is distinguished only by a series of quirks, such as calling her mother “Muzzy,’’ rather than character traits.

The one area where Kostova excels is in her writing about art and art-making. “I was thinking about a blend of colors that might express those bright green and russet leaves against one another,’’ one character muses. Another looks at a first snow: “The wilted garden is already covered with subtle color - indeed, it isn’t white. Beige, today? Silver? Colorless, if there is such a thing?’’

Writing about the absence of art, Kostova is even more poignant. When Kate mulls over how she gave up her dreams to care for her children, she writes, “Maybe this was why I was converted to touch and left the world of vision. . . . My family, the way they licked me and chewed me, kissed me and pulled at me, spilled things on me - juice, urine, semen muddy water.” Such high points suggest that the real book here - the interaction between artist and family - could have been as compelling as Kostova’s first novel.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of “Cries and Whiskers.’’

THE SWAN THIEVES By Elizabeth Kostova

Little, Brown, 576 pp., $26.99