Elizabeth Kostova first burst onto the literary scene in 2005 when news spread about her $2 million paycheck for the brainy, bulky vampire novel The Historian. (Think Twilight for Smarty-Pants.) Five years later she returns with another doorstop of a read, 576 pages about a mentally ill painter and his obsession with a long-dead woman. The Swan Thieves has a revolving door of narrators, from the square psychiatrist charged with the man's care, to the painter's long-suffering ex-wife, to his younger mistress. Alas, none of them are as compelling as they should be. The doctor, Marlow, in particular is a drag. We’re saddled with him for the slow 75 pages that open the novel, as he struggles unsuccessfully to get the mad artist to explain why he attacked a 19th-century painting in Washington's National Gallery. While the patient stays mum, we're forced to keep the doctor company as he goes for his morning runs or muses over traffic or makes himself his evening bowl of soup.
The novel's most intriguing moments take place in the past. Marlow's only clues into his patient’s ravaged mind are an old stack of charmingly fraught letters between a young artist the woman responsible for the hole at the center of the painter's heart and her husband's uncle. Every time the story returns to the present, and Marlow's plodding descent into unprofessionalism, the momentum sags. There are some fun minor characters to enjoy here including Marlow’s kindly minister father and a tanned and cocksure artist on the make at a retreat. But the only person who springs fully alive from these pages is the dead woman. That makes sense in a way; we have to love her to understand why she is worth a man’s sanity. Unfortunately, when she's not around we're in for a sometimes tedious slog. Kostova is a methodical storyteller, unrushed—though next time her editor might want to push her along better and often lovely. As she demonstrated in The Historian, she knows how to craft a breathless ending. But what The Swan Thieves lacks is any maintained sense of urgency. That's a desperate flaw for a story of passion and obsession. C