Kostova uses three characters to narrate the contemporary action: Dr. Marlow, Kate and Mary. Letters from late-nineteenth century France tell another story line that ties to the ending. Characters overlap each other’s lives, often with disastrous results. And while the ending was no surprise, I was very willing to follow everyone along their journey.
I think it was this interweaving storytelling style that kept my interest. Several times while reading I would remember that the characters all sounded similar (as I have written about before). Marlow, Kate and Mary are all painters and all talk about paint and painting and art. And they all sound alike. This makes the opinions expressed seem to be Kostova’s. If she had chosen a third person narrator, then everything would sound the same and it would be Kostova’s views and descriptions of art. I think the novel would still be a strong story in third person, maybe even stronger than it is.
Luckily, I like following personal stories, smaller dramas between people [see the EJ-Sami debacle (to the left) and the Melanie-Philip-Stephanie-Nathan love quadrangle (below, right)] and the mystery of Robert Oliver’s freak out and the woman he is obsessed with works for me. There were many stories within the main plot line, like flashbacks to fill out the vague picture of a brilliant artist on the edge.
In some ways, the hardest character to see was Dr. Marlow. I expected it to be Robert the artist since he quickly chooses to be mute and refuses to communicate with Marlow. But so much of Marlow’s story is wrapped up in his conversations with Kate and Mary that it was at times difficult to get a clean grasp on him.
The best scene that defined him for me was when he visits his father. They sit in the kitchen and Marlow talks about his patient. His father intuitively knows more about the situation than Marlow is willing to provide and is uncomfortably happy when his father calls him out on falling for Mary. They take a walk to visit his mother’s grave. This tiny portion of the book (compared to the 560+ page tome in full) is Marlow as himself.
Not Robert’s psychiatrist. Not the man listening to and observing Robert’s ex-wfe. Not the man falling in love with his patient’s ex-lover. And maybe he isn’t just Marlow in the scene with his father. If we decided that everyone is someone in relation to another, then he was someone’s son in that moment. But it felt refreshing and honest compared to the muddiness of his involvement in the rest of the story.
Marlow is supposed to be writing this story ten years later (the action occurred in 1999-2000) but he doesn’t seem to have any more opinions or insight about the case than ten years earlier. His father provides that element in the novel. (And Kostova could have if she had chosen a third person narrator.)
The Swan Thieves was an engaging read that I never bored of. Kostova’s descriptions of fabricated paintings brought them to life before my eyes. I cared about the characters she conjured. That makes it a success.