Yes, I do also read non-challenge books these days, and when I saw The Swan Thieves: A Novel on the store shelves recently, I happily snatched it up and devoured it over the course of a single weekend. While it’s not quite as mammoth as Kostova’s wonderful The Historian, it’s substantial in its own right and definitely worth the investment of reading hours.
The book’s main character and primary narrator is Dr. Andrew Marlow, who encounters a fascinating and troubled patient, painter Robert Oliver, who has attempted to destroy a famous painting based on the story of Leda and the Swan. While trying to diagnose and better understand Oliver, Marlow finds himself drawn to the mystery Oliver is unwilling to share, and consequently, deeper and deeper into both Oliver’s life and the historical romance and betrayal that has driven Oliver to the breaking point.
When I read The Historian, I remember wondering at the end what Kostova’s second novel would be like: would she stick with vampires and the supernatural? How much of her style and voice was defined by this particular subject, and what would she sound like if she were writing about something else? More importantly, would I like another novel by her if it wasn’t about Dracula?
The answer is a solid and resounding yes–with The Swan Thieves, I had one of those reading experiences where you get so transfixed by a book that everything else seems to drop away. You know those experiences, right? Where you’re running late and you haven’t dressed yet and there’s housework and grading you could be doing, but instead, you’re reading, and reading, and reading, hoping desperately to finish the book before you absolutely have to leave the house and tear yourself away from this imaginary world.
The word I keep returning to in trying to describe Kostova’s style is deliberate; while I always tell my students that especially in poetry, every word choice is deliberate and significant, Kostova’s work is actual testimony to how an author places each word as carefully as a bricklayer or stone mason might use his materials. While at some points in both novels, the reader feels a little weary under the weight of detail, I always felt compelled enough to keep moving forward, always confident that Kostova was leading me with a sure and controlled hand. This was especially impressive to me here as she tackles the feat of describing paintings and discussing art in ways that are not only accessible to general readers, but so that you feel you can actually see the paintings and feel their power, just as the characters do.
If you enjoyed The Historian, I feel confident you’ll like this one too. If you enjoy historical romance or fine art, or thinking about the intersections between mental illness and creativity, I think you’ll like this one. Finally, if you are fascinated by how complicated we can be, and often wonder how any of us manage to live stable lives and have functioning relationships despite it all, The Swan Thieves might make an excellent addition to your reading list.