ELIZABETH Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is an enduring romantic novel. The plot has two parallel stories running, one linked to the other in an esoteric way. This adds to the intensity and depth of the narration. The stories revolve around the love between two artists – Beatrice and Olivier, who are now dead, and the undying love of a living painter Robert Oliver for Beatrice.
Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist get Robert Oliver as patient, after he tried to attack a painting. It is of a swan, titled Leda. Oliver remains silent despite several attempts by Marlow, who is a painter himself to draw him out. Intrigued, he starts tracking the past of Olivier, meeting his women and his ex-colleagues. During the course of this he comes across the letters written between Beatrice and Olivier, which are now in Oliver’s possession.
Kate, Robert’s wife tells Marlow that Robert has been painting the same woman, an extremely beautiful one, canvas after canvas as though he is possessed. When confronted, he is unable to say who the woman is. Marlow, in fact discovers it to be Beatrice, the gifted painter who gave up the brush just around the time her daughter was born.
Marlow himself gets inexplicably involved with Robert’s case and pursues people across continents to unravel the mystery. It gets solved right at the end, when he meets the man Beatrice’s daughter lived with for 25 years. The sub-plot is the love between Marlow and Mary, the woman Oliver lived with after Kate threw him out of the house. The image of swan recurs in the book, teasing the reader about the ‘thieves.’
Elizabeth has built up the characters and the plot in a masterly way, engrossing the reader page after page. Robert and Olivier come out as men of emotional strength while Beatrice is almost like a nymph. The author’s previous novel The Historian was also a much acclaimed one.
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