Kostova follows up her blockbuster debut about the undead (The Historian, 2005) with a romance about a contemporary painter’s obsession with an undiscovered 19th-century Impressionist.
After he attempts to slash the painting Leda at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., respected artist Robert Oliver is committed to a mental hospital under the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow (think Heart of Darkness). A painter himself, Marlow is fascinated by his patient, who refuses to speak and paints the same dark-haired woman over and over. “When I asked him whether he was sketching from imagination or drawing a real person,” Marlow remembers, “he ignored me more pointedly than ever.” Then Robert lends Marlow a package of letters written in the late 1870s by aspiring painter Béatrice de Clerval Vignot to her husband’s uncle Olivier Vignot, an established artist at the Paris Salon. Knowing he is stretching professional boundaries, Marlow goes to North Carolina to visit Robert’s charming, pragmatic ex-wife and tracks down the spirited painter Mary Bertison, with whom Robert later lived in D.C. Both women loved the artist and felt they lost him to the woman in the painting. Marlow himself falls increasingly under Béatrice’s spell as he reads letters tracing her growing feelings for Uncle Olivier. The psychiatrist, a 52-year-old bachelor, is also drawn to Mary despite the questionable professional ethics of dating a patient’s ex-girlfriend. With Robert tucked away painting his Béatrice in silence, Marlow travels to Mexico with Mary, then alone to Paris to trace the life of the real Béatrice and track down her secret paintings of swans; short chapters set in 1879 reveal what happened to her and her work. Kostova’s theme is creative obsession and what everyday boundaries can be broken in its name; the novel seems to favor the most romantic answer.
Neither Robert’s decisions nor Marlow’s make a lot of sense, but lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.