When a famous artist is arrested for attacking a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and is sentenced to confinement in a mental institution, Dr. Andrew Marlow, an aspiring painter and a successful psychiatrist is the logical choice to oversee his treatment. At first reluctant to take on the new patient who refuses to speak to anyone, Marlowe becomes intrigued by the gifted genius who obsessively paints a beautiful woman in 19th Century clothing day in and day out. As he tries to discover the identity of the woman who could inspire such artistic passion, Marlow delves into Robert Oliver’s past, meeting the women who’ve loved him and who have been betrayed by him. Although his only response to Marlow’s questioning is “I did it for her” Robert Oliver’s bizarre behavior seems to be tied to a packet of French love letters which were written more than a century ago. As Dr. Marlow undertakes an international journey to uncover the source of his patient’s demons, the aging psychiatrist embarks on his own voyage of self-discovery.
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves entertains and delights on many levels. Aside from being a study of the debilitating effects of obsession, it is a love story and an art history lesson about the impressionists. The opening scene shows an impressionist artist painting a landscape when a woman crosses his path and hurries though the scene. She is carrying something, but on her return, her arms are empty. On a whim he adds her to his painting and remarks to himself, “…and now she is frozen in haste. She is a real woman, and now she is a painting.” This scene sets the stage for the mystery that underlies the entire book and drives the featured character, Robert Oliver, to behave as he does as he tries to make a painting become a real woman. Kostova does a remarkable job of leading the listener to smugly arrive at clever, insightful conclusions which prove to be false.
A cast of first rate, acclaimed actors gives life to the diverse characters, transporting the listener from academia to salons, back and forth across the Atlantic from the age of the impressionists to the age of Aquarius and back again. Musical clues signal the start of passages from earlier times or indicate that the narrator is reading the contents of an old letter. Rather than detract from the action, the music adds suspense and anticipation to the romantic enigma making this audio presentation a particularly sensual experience. Kostova’s descriptive prose and straightforward dialogue provide the verbal foundation for the drama. One can almost feel the painful despair of the mental state created by an obsession that keeps Robert Oliver a prisoner of his passion. The story is so compelling and the mystery so skillfully prolonged from the beginning of the book until its final chapters that the listener is torn between wanting to know what happened and not wanting the suspense to end.
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Read by Treat Williams, Anne Heche and others
Hachette Audio, unabridged: 18 hours on 17 CDs
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