Monday, September 20, 2010

176 (2010 #41). The Swan Thieves

by Elizabeth Kostova,
read by Treat Williams, Anne Heche, Erin Cottrell, Sarah Zimmerman and John Lee

I picked up this audiobook for the library's collection because it got a lot of good press, due to Kostova's breakout hit The Historian (which is sitting on my TBR pile, languishing due to its size and subject matter of vampires).  As an audiobook, The Swan Thieves is quite good--as a story, only so-so.

A famous painter named Robert Oliver lunges with a knife at a painting of Leda by the (fictional) Gilbert Thomas at a museum, and is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital staffed by Andrew Marlow (voiced by Williams), who paints for pleasure.  Oliver won't speak, so Marlow resorts to some rather unconventional measures to figure out what is going on - including talking with Robert's ex-wife (Kate, voiced by Heche) and ex-mistress (Mary, voiced by Cottrell), both painters, and traveling to Paris. Robert is obsessed by a woman who turns out to be a (fictional) French Impressionist painter named Beatrice (voiced by Zimmerman) who worked briefly in the 1890s, mentored by her uncle-by-marriage Olivier (voiced by Lee).  The modern story (set around 2000) is interspersed with letters exchanged by Beatrice and Olivier and the events in their lives a hundred-plus years earlier.

This book was odd but fascinating.  Marlow doesn't behave like any psychiatrist I know (don't want to give away too many spoilers here).  The detail about the techniques of art and painting and Impressionism are very interesting, but drag the story down, slowing the plot and adding way more detail than is necessary.  Kate talks for a while about her life with Robert and is quite compelling, but then disappears from the story.  Mary gives us a little too much information about her life.  In many ways, Beatrice and Olivier were the most alluring characters, despite the fake-French accents used by their readers that are rather grating after a while.

I'm not sure if I would have been able to finish this book if I'd been reading the 564-page print version.  The audio version, with its variety of voices, kept my interest up through 17 discs.  Part of the mystery at the heart of the story was easy to guess, but part of it surprised me, and a medical reason for Robert's becoming obsessed was never made clear.  The book begins and ends with a puzzling reference to another painter who is apparently Alfred Sisley, but the canvas he's creating, although similar to one of his works, is also fictional.  All in all, this was a good read, but not one I could recommend highly.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]