Like Kostova’s other novels, this one slowly weaves together two stories, a little more than a hundred years apart and it takes until the very last page to see how all the characters fit together.
*In one story, a mentally ill patient, Robert Oliver, who happens to be a prominent American artist, is institutionalized after attacking a painting in a museum. Because the patient refuses to talk to his psychiatrist, the doctor, Andrew Marlowe, struggles to independently investigate the patient’s past to find some way to understand and help him. Along the way, we meet the Oliver’s ex-wife, former lover, and faculty colleague. And as Marlowe becomes increasingly immeshed in his patient’s life, he finds it more difficult to maintain professional objectivity and winds up questioning aspects of his own life.
*In the second story, Beatrice de Clerval Vignot, a talented woman artist in France during the height of Impressionism, finds herself increasingly drawn to her husband’s uncle, another artist, who encourages her exploration of her talent.
Kostova alternates chapters in telling the two stories and is exceptionally gifted in writing in different voices. Her prose is beautiful and evokes such powerful emotions — tenderness, longing, passion, deep hurt, and, of course, love. The book has it all — human drama, romance, mystery, mounting tension, and rich and distinctive characters. It’s a long book but well worth the investment.