Vigilant readers may remember that some time ago I reviewed Kostova’s first book, The Historian (2005), and found it quite enjoyable but lacking whatever it is that turns a good book into an excellent one. Why did I read her second one (2010)? I was attracted by the references to the historical side of the story, which is set against the rise of French Impressionism, and I like books that relate the past to the present. But I should probably have known better, because it was a repeat experience – a pleasant enough read, but certainly reaching no great heights.
The painter Robert Oliver becomes a patient of psychiatrist Dr Andrew Marlow because he has tried to attack a painting in the Washington National Gallery. After saying a few words when he is admitted to the psychiatric hospital, he refuses to speak at all. Marlow, who is an amateur painter, gives Oliver painting supplies. He finds that Oliver obsessively draws and paints only one subject, a young woman in nineteenth century clothes. In order to find the reason for Oliver’s outbreak, Marlow tries to understand this apparent fixation. He visits the painting Oliver attacked, talks with his former wife Kate and girlfriend Mary and has some nineteenth century letters in Oliver’s possession translated from the French. Marlow is the main first person narrator; he is looking back at events that happened several years before. Kate and Mary also have their own sections where they tell Marlow, or write down for him in the first person, their experiences with Oliver – in quite unrealistic detail, I might add. The letters are included, and there are also sections dated 1879 which, in the present tense, tell of the life of a French painter, Béatrice de Clerval, who is the writer of some of the letters. It is not giving anything away to say she is also the object of Oliver’s obsession, since this is obvious to the reader, though not to the other characters, from the first.
There are two main themes in the story – obsession and love. Given the title, the main narrative drive should come from the mystery of Oliver’s obsession, mirrored to a lesser degree by Marlow’s near obsession with finding out about it. But the story proceeds at such a leisurely pace that this focus is often lost. In the early pages especially, I found myself getting impatient. Where was all this going? But at the same time, the Marlow’s narrative is also a love story, and it is almost worth thinking of the book as a classic romance - the meeting, the obstacles, the way they are overcome. The nineteenth century section is also a love story, as in their way are Kate’s and Mary’s stories, though not all of these romance sub-plots end happily. The historical and the main modern romance have some elements in common, so Kostova clearly meant parallels to be drawn. Seen as a mystery, the story is a bit far-fetched for my liking, with a bit too much coincidence in the dénouement. Seen as a romance, it works quite well. Kostova writes very readable prose, and her characters are likeable and interesting, though the voices of Kate and Mary are rather too similar – a criticism I also had of supposedly different voices in The Historian.
But for me, the main interest is the painting, both the activity and the works produced. Almost all the main characters are painters, and there is a good deal of discussion of their craft, both in the present, and to a lesser degree in the 1870s. Oliver is a good painter and a good teacher; he ‘made it seem easy, this viewing of basic forms and blocking them in, adding color, touching them with light’. Mary’s painting was ‘a scene of soft, rough colors – the blue of the sea with the colorless sheen of evening already on its surface’. And the description of ‘The Swan Thieves’ brings this imaginary painting so much to life – ‘a largish canvas, about four feet by three, rendered in the bright palette of the Impressionists’ – that it is hard to believe it doesn’t really exist somewhere. Some of the paintings discussed are real, though most are not. The ‘Leda and the Swan’ Oliver appeared to be attacking is not real, though the artist to whom it is attributed, Gilbert Thomas, is. Nor is Thomas’s ’self- portrait’ real. The book begins with a prologue in which Alfred Sisley is painting a snow scene in a French village, and while he did paint snow scenes, I can’t find any that match this one. However like Béatrice de Clerval in the story, several of the Impressionists did paint in Etretat and other villages in Normandy, and I enjoyed following up the works referred to.
I gather there are quite divided responses to this book among readers. For me, it’s a case of character and setting winning out over story. As I said, a pleasant read, though not a really compelling one.
You can find out more about Elizabeth Kostova here.