Kostova has chosen this theme for her second novel, The Swan Thieves.
The millions who read her first book, The Historian, will remember how one embodied idea--in that case, a vampire--came down through the centuries, focusing our sense that the past never really disappears, that it stays with us constantly, forming and vivifying the moment. In The Swan Thieves actual objects--paintings--carry the weight of history into the present, directing passion and transporting their emotions through the centuries.
The novel begins when Robert Oliver, a brilliantly disturbed contemporary painter, tries to destroy a painting in the National Gallery, a comparatively obscure rendering of the "Leda and the Swan" motif done in the period of the French Impressionists. Oliver, who has chosen not to speak, is confined in a psychiatric hospital, where he paints, over and over again, the remarkably lifelike portrait of a woman no one alive has ever seen.
His doctor, one Andrew Marlowe (the echo of Joseph Conrad is intentional), himself a Sunday painter who has not quite abandoned his youthful passion for the art, begins to try to reconstruct Oliver's past, first in an effort to help his patient, and then for reasons reflecting his own psychology.