"The Swan Thieves" Book Discussion and Strawberry Pie Bites Recipe
Robert Oliver is a divorced, middle-aged artist who confoundingly enters the National Gallery of Art and tries to stab a painting of “Leda and the Swan”. Andrew Marlow is his newly-appointed psychiatrist, struggling to glean Robert’s past from the stubborn, completely silent man. The doctor is forced to question Robert’s ex-wife Kate, his former student and lover Mary, and even other artists, to solve the mystery of Robert Oliver’s silence and spontaneous aggression. It unfolds that Robert has developed an obsession with a young artist who died 40 years before he was born.
Beatrice de Clerval, a French painter, is woven into the story sporadically as she tells of her affair with her uncle-in-law and the pursuit of her artistic talents. The details of her life are revealed tantalizingly slowly in the form of letters which Robert Oliver has allowed his psychiatrist to borrow and read. To help Robert, Andrew must marry the oddness of Robert’s passionate love for a long-dead artist, his possession of these letters, and what motive could anger a man enough to attempt stabbing a seemingly-random painting.
Marlow must travel across continents to untangle the connection between modern-day and past artists and their secret histories in order to understand and save the tortured mind of a brilliant, attractive artist.
Perfect for fans of
- art/art history
- unsolved mystery
- historical fiction
- mental health issues/awareness
- (French) artists
- love triangles
- romantic drama
1. Early on, Marlow states that the women he’s loved were all something like he was (moody, perverse, interesting). Do you find that the people you are attracted to share some of your personality traits? Does knowing this make them more or less attractive to you?
2. Are we “never really alert to our destinies”? 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” when you were supposed to have a focused intent? When?
4. What do you think made Kate and Mary, and probably many other female students swoon over Robert? Did you find any aspect of his personality attractive?
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?
6. Do you think that “Everything that’s ever happened is stored somewhere in the universe…in black holes of time and space”? Or do you think the memories are here, still alive on or in the earth itself, or merely in people’s minds or histories? Is it possible for memories 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? What was it, and why did it impact you so greatly?
8. Why did Mary feel that Robert was an “impossible act to follow”, that “everyone begins to seem kind of pale by contrast, kind of dull”? Have you ever felt that way? What changed 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.” Why did he make that statement? Can it be true in real life as well?
11. In what way could “the heaven” of art “be hellish” for Mary, 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”? Why might 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” 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”? Or was it probably 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 or 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 another’s genius or ideas, borrowed 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”? Does Beatrice’s curiosity stem from dissatisfaction with her current life?
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.” Is this true for just her and Robert, or does it apply to other relationships in this story? 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?” Did you see Robert’s obsession more clearly because of this confession? 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.” Was that true for her at the time, that she belonged to Robert, just as Robert did to Beatrice? How did the things or people these characters loved have ways of showing ownership over them?
Strawberry pies 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. These are in a bite-sized, individual portion perfect for a book club, artist’s party, or any other sort of party.
Strawberry Pie Bites
For the crust:
- 6 tbsp cold salted butter
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
- 1/4-1/3 cup ice water
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
For the filling:
- 1/2 pint fresh strawberries, quartered
- 1/4 tsp lemon or lime juice
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 tbsp water, at room temperature
You can also make a faster, even easier version of this recipe using premade frozen pie crust and strawberry jelly or jam.
- **This step can be done the day before and the strawberry filling refrigerated in a sealed container: In a pot on the stove, combine strawberries and 3/4 cup sugar. Turn the heat to high and cook until bubbling, for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally with a whisk. Once the mixture is boiling, stir every minute or so, but keep cooking for 12-15 minutes until most of the strawberries resemble a chunky, slurry mush of goodness. In a separate small bowl, stir together the water and cornstarch until completely dissolved. When most chunks of strawberry have mostly disappeared, add the cornstarch water, stirring frequently, and continue to cook for another minute or two, until the white of the cornstarch has disappeared and the sauce begins to thicken. Remove from heat, add the lemon juice, and allow to cool completely.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the flour with one tablespoon of sugar. Place the butter on top and use a pastry cutter to mix the butter in until it resembles small crumbs. Then add the ice water, drizzling in a couple tablespoons at a time, and fold the water into the flour mix by hand. You may need a bit more or less water depending on humidity (you want just enough water for all the flour in the dough to come together, but not to be soggy). Make sure the water you add is icy cold. When the flour is fully combined into a dough, roll into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. **Refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.**
- Spray a mini cupcake tin liberally with nonstick cooking spray. Roll out the dough onto a heavily floured flat surface (I used 3/4 cup) to about 1/16 inch thick or the height of a thin cookie. Cut the dough into small circles just slightly larger than the holes of the tin, using a small cup. Then place each round in each hole of the tin and press down gently, floured side down. Repeat the rolling and cutting out process until the dough is all used up. Fill each pressed dough round with about a teaspoon of strawberry filling. Don’t fill them above the line of the tin or they will boil over. Bake for 16-17 minutes, until the tips of the crust begin to turn slightly brown. Then allow to cool 5-10 minutes before devouring. Makes about 2 dozen pie bites.
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If you like the mysterious connections of artists with the past, and the secrets between generations that are left to be uncovered, read The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman, Tiffany Blues by M. J. Rose, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, or The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton.
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. For a less frightening novel about people’s colors and auras, read Insomnia by Stephen King.
“We are never really alert to our destinies.”
“A painting has to have some mystery to it to be good.”
“What will we do someday...without the pleasures of turning through books and stumbling on things we never meant to find?”
“Why would anyone choose to be more of a victim when his own brain chemistry was hurting him enough? But that was always the question, the problem of how chemistry shapes our will.”
“There’s a good probability that everything that’s ever happened is stored somewhere in the universe...folded away in pockets and black holes of time and space.”
“...the warmth of his eyes...crept into my bloodstream.”
People whose marriages haven’t collapsed, or whose spouses die instead of leaving, don’t know that marriages that end seldom have a single ending.”
“He can’t really love anyone you know, and in the end such people are always alone, no matter how much other people once loved them.”
“It’s a shame for women’s history to be all about men.”
“Doesn’t every love express itself this way, with the seeds of both its flowering and its ruin in the very first words, the first breath, the first thought?”
© 2018 Amanda Leitch