Friday, January 15, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova (thanks, Librarything!)

 my edition

First, my thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewers program for pulling my name out of the hat to win this book.  If you haven't yet visited LibraryThing, get on over there...great site. And my thanks to Little, Brown, for sending me a beautiful finished copy rather than an ARC.

So let's get to it.  Weighing in at nearly 600 pages, The Swan Thieves is a novel about obsession and art. It's also a story about love lost and found. The basic plot lines up like this: Robert Oliver is a well-known and somewhat eccentric painter who is arrested for going to the National Gallery, whipping out a knife, and tries to disfigure a painting there. Luckily, a guard stops him in time. After his arrest, he is put under psychiatric care, and his doctor, Andrew Marlow, wants to know why he did it. All he would say is that "I did it for her" and that he "did it for the woman I love." (20) After that, he doesn't say a word for a year, not to Marlow or to anyone. Marlow wants to understand not only what prompted Oliver to do this, but also why he refuses to speak. The only clues he has are some old letters, written in French (and which he has translated) to which Oliver seems greatly attached, and a painting of a beautiful woman, done by Oliver. Marlow's investigations take him back in time about 100 years, back to the France of the Impressionist period of art. There are actually three stories interwoven here: first, the story of Robert Oliver as told mainly by women who loved him; second, the story of Beatrice de Clerval, one of the writers of Oliver's letters, and third, about Marlow himself, and what he discovers about himself in his journey into Oliver's life.

Although the story grabbed my attention at first, for most of the first half of the book I waited for something interesting to happen.  Then as things started to pick up in the second half, suddenly everything became very clear.  It is throughout the second half of the story that the past becomes more involved with the present, where most of the action takes place.  Although the reader doesn't really figure it out until the very end, I had this flash of insight and I knew exactly what had driven Robert Oliver crazy. Lo and behold, when the truth is revealed, I was right. And I hate when that happens. Maybe I read way too much.

Kostova lets many voices tell their own stories; however, once I started reading the various modern-day narrations, they didn't come across as individual or distinguishable from any of the other characters. And also, dialog just didn't ring true. In Kate's story, for example, which was a conversation between herself and Dr. Marlow, the dialog was stilted, filled with descriptions and verbiage that one person just wouldn't use with another in personal conversation. The same was true with Mary.  I never really felt like I got to know anyone in this story, and I especially didn't think Marlow's character was believable or strong.  Another negative -- after all of the time and energy I put into this book, the ending (with its explanations) didn't take very long, and just sort of zoomed right on up there.

Overall, the story was okay, and the journey to the end was okay. I like books about people caught up in obsessions, and in that arena, the author did a great job. I loved Kostova's The Historian, but to compare the two wouldn't be fair.  I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who enjoy love stories more than I do, and to people who like history interwoven with the present. Once again, however, I find myself swimming against the tide of people who were wowed with this book, so it's one of those you have to read for yourself rather than take my word for it. I do, however, predict it will be a bestseller very shortly.


  1. Good review. Shame it didn't quite hit the right note for you. I pre-ordered my copy (waiting) but am also worried that it just won't live up to my expectations after her amazing The Historian - always a risk when the first book is so wonderful - fingers crossed!

  2. Thanks for the comment. Like I said, it's getting rave reviews, so it's probably me.


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