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‘The Swan Thieves’: An artist and the mysterious object of his obsession

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The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

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Robert Oliver, a divorced, middle aged painter who tries to stab a painting of “Leda and the Swan” at the National Gallery of Art. Andrew Marlow, his new psychiatrist, who can learn nothing of Robert’s past from the silent man himself, leaving the doctor to question Robert’s ex-wife Kate, his former student and lover Mary, and even other artists, to solve the mystery of Robert’s obsession with a young woman, also an artist, who died 40 years before Robert was born. Beatrice de Clerval, a young French painter, who is woven into the story sporadically as she tells of her affair with her uncle-in-law and the pursuit of her artistic talents. These are slowly revealed to us in letters which Robert Oliver has allowed his psychiatrist to read. To help Robert, Andrew must unravel the mystery of Robert’s passionate love for a long-dead artist, how he came about those letters, and what made him angry enough to try to stab this seemingly random painting. The interconnectedness of all these modern-day artists entangles with that of much older ones from pasts Marlow must untangle as he travels across continents and secret histories to understand and save the tortured mind of a brilliant, attractive artist.

Recommendations:

If you like the mysterious connections of artists with the past, and the secrets between generations that are left to be uncovered, read The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman.

If you want to read a darkly humorous book about art and its reflections of life and people, try The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd.

For another story of a man haunted by a woman, and the young girl discovering their secrets, read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

For a terrifying horror story about a brilliant, tortured artist who must redeem the past, read -with the lights on- Duma Key by Stephen King.

The Recipe:
I chose individual strawberry pies because they were served as dessert at the artists’ retreat where Mary met Robert for the first time as an adult herself, and where their connection really began for him. And the picture of this recipe looked too crumbly, warm, and gooey to pass up.

Mini Strawberry Pie Recipe

Prep Time: 30 mins Cooking Time: 40 mins

Ingredients:
5 cups strawberries (hulled and halved)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 pie crusts (dough)
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice
6 tablespoons butter cubed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss strawberries in sugar and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the crumble top in a medium bowl by whisking together flour, brown sugar and apple pie spice. Add butter and use fingers to clump it together into a crumble topping. Set aside. Place pie crust on a floured surface and cut out circles that are slightly bigger than the circumference of your muffin tins. Place the cut dough circles (one by one) into the muffin tins. Press them down so there are no air bubbles and push up the sides to form a cup. Two packages of pie dough should make 12 dough cups. When finished, strain the strawberries to let liquid drain off. This is an important step in making sure your pies aren’t soupy. Transfer back to the bowl and mix in lemon juice and cornstarch. Spoon strawberries into cups and crumble topping over each cup. Things should be overflowing. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes to an hour or until brown and bubbly. (When you first remove the muffin tin from the oven it will look messy but they come out looking great.) Let them cool completely and then take a thin butter knife and cut around the edges to loosen. Carefully remove pies and serve with ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream. Makes 12 mini pies.

Discussion Questions:

1. Early on, Marlow states that the women he’s loved were all something like he was (moody, perverse, interesting) (12). Do you find that the people you are attracted to share some of your personality traits? Does this make them more or less attractive to you?
2. Are we “never really alert to our destinies”? (16) When pivotal moments of your life happened, did you have any sort of premonition or feeling about what was to happen, or did realization of the moment’s impact not set in until after it was over?
3. Have you ever looked through the internet, a book, a museum, with a “deep aimless pleasure” (45) when you were supposed to have a focused intent? When? How did your mind get to wandering that way?
4. Did you, at any point, find yourself attracted to Robert Oliver? If so, what characteristics about him made you feel that way? What do you think made Kate and Mary, and probably many other female students swoon?
5. Kate’s eyes are described as periwinkle, but perhaps this is more a reflection of her personality as Marlow sees it, than of her actual eye color. Do some people seem to radiate certain colors based on their moods, or is one color dominant because of a personality? Are these reflections of them or us? (For more about people’s colors and auras, read Insomnia by Stephen King)
6. Do you think that “Everything that’s ever happened is stored somewhere in the universe…in black holes of time and space” (82)? Or do you think the memories are here, still alive on or in the earth itself, or merely in people’s minds or histories? If so, is it possible for them to be as vivid for us as for Robert? Or was that part of his mania?
7. Was there ever a moment you could point back to with a lover or spouse where you were theirs from then on, that they had you in their pocket? (91) What was it, and why did it impact you so greatly?
8. Was Robert really an “impossible act to follow” for Mary? Why did she feel that way at the time, that “everyone begins to seem kind of pale by contrast, kind of dull” (250)? Have you ever felt that way? Did it stay that way for you, or did something change it? What changed it for Mary?
9. Why is it “a shame for a woman’s history to be all about men”? Can you think of any women of history who were that way and were still considered great? What about the opposite? Why do some women feel the need to define their lives in terms of their relationships?
10. Olivier tells Beatrice “no one fills the absence left by another; you have simply filled my heart again.” While this may be true for him, is it true for us, for you, as well? Does it apply to only people lost, or other things too?
11. In what way “could the heaven” of art “be hellish” for Mary (281), as Robert warned her? How was it for each of the artist characters? Did they all think it worth it to produce what they did, or do you think any of them ever regretted becoming an artist?
12. Does Marlow show a sense of fatalism and negativity towards his father’s impending death, or is it only steady acceptance when he says “I sometimes believed that he would not be complete for me until he was gone, perhaps because of the suspense of loving someone at the far edge of life”? (319). Is it perhaps easier for him to cope with his father’s old age and frailty in this manner?
13. Why do we try to “extricate one misery from another” (327) asking “which is worse” like Andrew does about the way his mother died versus that it was so young? Does it make any difference to play games like this? Is it a sort of preference of reality, and a way of comparing what we think we can handle? Does life ever seem to care about these sorts of things anyway?
14. Do you think some of Robert’s “depression had come from simple displacement: a person larger than life…needed a setting to match his energy”? (335) Or was it merely his obsession with and passion for Beatrice and anger at the injustices in her life that caused his depression?
15. How rare is it to find a person as blatantly honest as Robert, someone who gives “unvarnished praise or dismissal”? Do we, as a society, prevent these personalities from flourishing because of our own insecurities? Do we squash this characteristic in others because it makes us uncomfortable with the realities we are unwilling to face? Why would this be so appealing of a trait for Mary? What about for Andrew?
16. Perhaps the greatest question this book poses is this: “Does anything belong to one artist?” Aren’t all things, in a sense, copies of other’s genius or ideas. Don’t we always borrow something from another, not just artists, but writers, and all other creative minds. Is there anything completely original ever created, or do we create things the way we understand them, as they relate to things we know?
17. Have you ever looked at anyone’s house, or life, and wondered in curiosity, not jealousy, “what the life in that house is like, and why she herself inhabits a different one…how easily fate might have accomplished…a trade”? (395) Why does Beatrice wonder this? Does her curiosity stem from dissatisfaction with her current life? Should she be dissatisfied?
18. Mary says “The first days of loving someone are vivid; you remember them in detail because they represent all the others. They even explain why a particular love doesn’t work out.” (397) Is this true for just her and Robert, or does it apply to other relationships in this story? Is this often true of unforgettable people that come into our lives? Do we seem to know, as Mary did about Robert, of the impact certain people will have from the first day we meet them, and do we perhaps begin to commit them to memory from the start? Or was Mary simply just as obsessed with Robert as Robert was with Beatrice?
19. Robert asks Mary, “Have you ever had this feeling that the lives people lived in the past are still real?” (403). At this point in the book, did you begin to expect something supernatural to happen, as in Jane Eyre? Or did you see Robert’s obsession clearly because of it? Have you ever felt the way that he does, has a person or an event in history ever come alive for you?
20. Mary confesses to Andrew that “In the end, we belong to what we love.” (420) was that true for her at the time, that she belonged to Robert, just as Robert did to Beatrice? Do the things or people we love have ways of showing ownership over us eventually? How did they in this book? In real life?

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