Kostova delivers a work of exceptional grace and sensitivity in a novel than spans from America to the Normandy coast in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In April 1999, Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Andrew Marlow accepts a patient into his psychiatric hospital, Goldengrove: a painter of some talent who attacked a painting at the National Gallery of Art with a pocket knife, claiming, ďI did it for her.Ē
After uttering but a few sentences at his admission, Robert Oliver refuses to say another word, leaving Marlow to discover the cause of his extreme emotional distress, a winding exhaustive trail that will lead to a heartbroken ex-wife, a former lover and years of a personal struggle reflected in his intense paintings. There is also the matter of the mysterious woman who graces many of Robertís canvasses, a dark beauty with anguished eyes.
A number of extraordinary characters people this novel, from the artist himself to the women in his life to a female artist in 1877 who exhibited in the Paris Salon of the French Impressionists and her mentor, her husbandís uncle, Olivier Vignot, also an artist of some reputation. For reasons unknown to Marlow, Oliver has become obsessed with Beatrice de Clerval, his growing body of work filled with sketches and paintings of the dark-haired beauty, his nights spent painting to exhaustion.
Marlow is fascinated by the enigmatic, stubbornly non-verbal Oliver but never anticipates the lengths to which he will go to learn more about Robertís life to offer the troubled man some relief. As a gesture of respect and sincerity, Andrew fills Robertís room with paints and canvasses, everything he will need to work while confined to Goldengrove. But even this act of generosity fails to assuage Marlowís conscience when the lines between doctor and patient blur in an evolving mystery from the days of the French Impressionists.
Whether writing about Robertís growing obsession with de Clerval or through the tender letters between Beatrice and her uncle-in-law Olivier Vignot in late 19th-century Paris, Kostova does a masterful job of developing her characters and exploring the artistís life, the eyes with which the artist views the world around him. She makes the reader fall in love with an unattainable man whose genius ruthlessly drives him to the edge of insanity; she writes with great compassion of a wife who fails her husband while he slips away to another; and she shares and extraordinary love story that reaches across generations, finding release in explosive paintings where passion may find voice denied in reality.
Relentlessly, these unique characters drive the story, the answers to troubling questions finally revealed in a shocking, painful denouement. Filled with the energy of art and history, Kostovaís compassionate novel is both a paean to creative genius and a love story that bridges the centuries and the continents.