(Written in December) If you've read Kostova's first novel, The Historian, then you know she likes to tell a long story; and you know that it will be rich, and deep, and full of life and mystery and intrigue and suspense. If you haven't read The Historian then I highly recommend it. The good news is that you can get it now, whereas The Swan Thieves will not be released until January 12, 2010. I actually feel a little bad that I am reviewing this now, since it's not released for a while, but I want it to be fresh in my head, and I promise I won't spoil it.
The Swan Thieves begins by introducing us to Dr. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist whose newest patient is Robert Oliver, a painter who attacked a piece of artwork at the National Gallery of Art. Robert has been recently divorced from his wife Kate, has abandoned his latest girlfriend, and now refuses to speak. Since his patient refuses to talk, Marlow must delve into Robert's personal life to find the mystery behind Robert's display of violence and lack of communication, as well as discover the identity of the woman he paints over and over. In doing so, Marlow discovers a long hidden secret and scandal in the world of 19th century art.
This book is like an onion; fold after fragrant fold reveals something intriguing, spicy, and a little exotic. It's a mystery, an old fashioned love story, and a new romance all at the same time. It's not simply about a psychiatrist and his patient, it's about the pressure of people's expectations, and the lengths you go to in order to protect the ones you love. It's about art, and passion, and beauty in barren landscapes.
Kostova artfully switches between the present dialogue of Marlow, who is telling this story to us, and the past entries of ancient letters and scenes from the 19th century, as well as chapters from other characters' points of view. She skillfully rotates the other characters so that we're never subjected to second-hand information. It's almost as though there are several stories woven into one, but each of them as lovely as the one before, and the one after. It's a multilayered novel, with more than one question and answer that Marlow, and now the reader, is searching for. Why did Robert attack the painting? Who are the women in his life, and what do they mean to him? How are the ancient letters he reads over and over related? Is Robert actually ill, or is there more to his silence and obsession? I found myself wondering all of these things, and hypothesizing on my own as to what would happen. There came a point, about seven-eighths of the way through the book, when part of the puzzle fell into place and I realized my breathing was so shallow, and my shoulders were so hunched, that I was completely tense waiting for the piece of information I had just received. I had to swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep breath and relax before I passed out on the train. That would have been great, right?
I am not sure which character I like best in this book, because truthfully Kostova's characters are so tangible and realistic that I can't not like any single one of them, even Robert. If you wanted her second book to follow the vampire theme from The Historian, you will be disappointed. But if you want a mystery, an old-fashioned honest-to-goodness mystery complete from fiction and imagination, then this is a book you must read. You will not regret it.
I'm torn between four and five stars on this one. It's a fantastically wonderful, beautiful book and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.
on January 30, 2010
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova tells the story of Dr. Marlow, who has just been assigned to the patient Robert Oliver, a man who just two weeks earlier attacked a painting, stating that he "did it for her." Like a lot of people I loved Elizabeth Kostova's first book The Historian. It was great. The story was interesting and gripping, the characters were alive and deep, and the plot was brilliant. So naturally when I saw this book at the local book store I bought it immediately, hoping for the same kind of experience I had with The Historian. Unfortunately I was disappointed. This book had a lot going for it, but it was bogged down too much by its flaws. I'll start with what I liked about the story.
+ The characters are very well defined. You really get a sense of who they are. I think the one exception to this would be Marlow, who I felt was more of a vessel to tell the story than a character. But other than Marlow the characters are interesting, diverse, and deep.
+ Fantastic main plot. The mystery about why Robert wanted to attack the painting, and who the mystery woman in his paintings is are what kept me reading this book. I kept turning the pages looking for answers, and I couldn't wait to get back to these mysteries. I found myself sucking in every little clue trying to piece the mysteries together.
+ The ending was great. I loved it. I never saw it coming, but looking back I could see little obscure clues that I paid no attention to before. The ending ties everything together quite nicely, without leaving any real loose ends. It ties together the past and the present and makes the whole story make so much more sense.
+ The art trivia and knowledge in this book is easily understood and admired, even by some of the less art savvy readers. I'll admit my ignorance of painting. It's not an art form I have had much experience in beyond going to a few museums, but even I found most of the art references and descriptions easy to understand and enjoy. I will say that some of the characters came off as art snobs for me though.
Now on to the flaws:
-I felt like the entire narratives of Mary and Kate could have either been removed, or been cut down to simply a couple of chapters. I felt like they were long, boring, tedious, and above all useless. They don't really contribute anything to the main mystery, and only really serve to chronicle Robert's love life. It's true that they helped define Robert's character a bit better, and show the depth of his obsession, but other than that they did nothing but prattle on about Mary and Kate's life and problems. I kept getting the feeling that the only reason they were there was to lengthen the story a good 300 or more pages. I also got the feeling that the author was trying to replicate the story telling style from her previous book The Historian, and while it worked great there, it didn't here. Here it just took away from the main story.
-These narratives also create another problem that other reviewers have mentioned- all the characters have the same voice. Mary and Kate sound almost exactly alike. Their word choice, their descriptions, everything about the way they tell their story is exactly the same. There's no personality in it. The only difference I could really find is that Mary calls her mother Muzzie and Kate just calls her mother. Outside of that they could have been told by the same person.
-Another annoying little problem that distracted me in this book is the colossal amount of detail. Detail is something that needs to be carefully balanced when writing. Despite what many English teachers out there are teaching kids there is such a thing as too much detail. In The Swan Thieves the detail is crippling. It drowns out the plot and makes everything seem unnecessarily wordy and drawn out.
So is The Swan Thieves a good book? Yes. It's a great story with a very fascinating mystery of love, obsession, and painting. Do I recommend it? Yes, but I suggest you wait until the paper back version comes out, or check it out of the library. The hardback version is expensive and I don't feel like there is much reread value. I still think Kostova is a great storyteller, and I'm eagerly awaiting her next book, I just think she missed the mark with this one.
The central figure of Kostova's impressive novel is a gifted artist, Robert Oliver, who is arrested when he attacks a painting hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, "Leda". In the painting a mortal woman is ravished by Zeus in the form of a swan, a theme that is woven through the novel, a mystery begun in the days of the French Impressionists. Thus does the author join the stories of two centuries, the late 19th and 20th, the characters as entwined as their paths through life. When psychiatrist Andrew Marlow accepts Robert Oliver as a patient in Goldengrove, the larger-than-life, enigmatic painter utters only a few sentences before he refuses to speak at all. Both intrigued and frustrated, Marlow makes it his particular mission to learn what has brought this talented man to this state, discovering along the way not only the circumstances of the heartbreaking world of genius but the limitations of his calling.
Kostova succeeds on so many levels in this layered, passionate novel, a study of human failings and the price of true art, from Oliver's own painful journey to the women who have known and loved him, as well as a female artist of great promise, a contemporary of the Impressionists, Beatrice de Cleval, and her mentor, artist Olivier Vignot. From one century to another, Kostova explores the unique and tortuous landscape of the dedicated artist, the power and beauty of creativity and the emotional devastation in its wake. She allows the reader to fall in love with an unattainable genius on an impossible quest, to feel the pain of a wife who isn't enough and a lover who cannot keep what she does not own. Then there is Beatrice de Cleval, one of the few women to be embraced by the great Salon of Paris and the inspiration for her powerful last painting, a seminal work that contains the heart of the mystery.
From one century to another, Kostova never loses focus, her characters beautifully rendered, their hopes and flaws, dreams and failures. A great love story fuels a mystery in 1877 that reaches into the 20th century and the world of an artist consumed by his particular obsession. From the windswept coast in Normandy to the predawn hours as Oliver paints furiously in his attic, the smell of turpentine is pungent, the pain of creativity tactile. Blending Impressionist France with more modern day Washington, DC, this is a sweeping novel of love and its costs, of artistic genius and its demands, a grand tale that is both revelatory and shocking, where spirit escapes the boundaries of daily life. Luan Gaines/2010.
I had such high hopes for this novel. I really enjoyed The Historian, so I thought I couldn't go wrong with Kostova's second book, a novel about Impressionism and psychology. I'm afraid she suffered a little bit from second-novel-itis this time, as she's written a novel that left me scratching my head quite a bit. I loved the premise: psychology and art are two things that you don't usually see thrown in together in a novel. It's a different subject matter altogether from The Historian, but I was hopeful nonetheless. Oh, how it falls short of expectations. I found that I was struggling to work my way through this sleeper of a novel. And the fact that I just described this book as "work" should tell you a lot about what I thought. Novels should be pleasure, not work.
First, the author gives a lot of detail. A lot. Excruciatingly, extraneously so. Need directions from Washington, D.C. to Greenville, North Carolina? This book can get you there! In many novels, lots of detail can be good, if it's used in the right way, but here it was distracting--Kostova gives us the background stories of even the most minor characters! Even for the major characters, details of their backgrounds are casually thrown in, sometimes simply because it is convenient to the story. For example, Andrew Marlowe goes down to North Carolina to visit Kate, and he says that the reason he knows the Virginia area so well is that he was at UVA. Then he never really follows up on that. Many of the characters and their motives simply aren't believable: in one scene, she has Kate walk into Lord & Taylor in New York City for a Christmas gift for her mother, only to tell her reader in the next breath that a) Kate can't afford the merchandise and b) her mother hates Lord & Taylor! So why go in there in the first place? Oh, yes, because that's where she happens to meet Robert--another advance-the-plot mechanism that just didn't work for me.
Another problem I had was with the lack of tonality. All of the characters' narrations sound exactly the same. In fact, had I not known from the get-go that Marlow was a man, I could have sworn that his character was female!
There are also some consistency issues and repetition: Andrew Marlowe tells us early on that he never does research on the internet, and then twenty pages on he says something to the effect of, "I should probably tell you now that I don't like doing research on the internet." But wait, didn't he tell us that before? And all of the examples I've cited above are only from the first hundred pages or so; there are probably more examples of how ineptly this novel is written and presented to the reader.
This book lacks that "je ne se quois" that The Historian has. In this book, the art bits are well-written and descriptive, but this book lacked that "something else" that made me want to keep turning pages. I couldn't get emotionally involved in the story the way I did with The Historian; the book is nearly 600 pages, and for that length a book should be compelling enough to make me want to read on. This book sadly just wasn't that for me. It's expecially disappointing considering that I had such high hopes for this book--after all, we've waited five years for it! I'm sure my opinion won't be popular, but that's just the way I see this book.
I really liked The Historian so I was looking forward to this one. What a disappointment. I finished it because I kept hoping it would get better (or that the pompous narrator would take a bullet to the head), but it was a struggle the whole way.
First, it needed an editor. This book absolutely did not need 564 pages for its story to be told; the author could have told it in 250 or so pages and had a much stronger book.
Next, the characters are awful and all appear to be the same person. There is next to no differentiation among their voices. The only way to tell them apart is by their names. The narrator has to be one of the most pompous, egotistical, and unethical characters I've read in a long time and I don't think the author intended that. Every single character in this book is self-absorbed and self-important and no one more so than the narrator. The painter at the center of the story is the most likeable of them all, but that's because he is pretty much silent throughout the book. I'm sure if the author had let him talk more he would've been just as annoying as the rest. Instead we're treated to how Byronic and romantic he is as seen through the eyes of the other characters, but at least keeps his mouth shut.
Lastly, the denouement of all of this prattle (which wants to say something serious about art, but doesn't manage it), the key to the mystery is covered in about 2 pages towards the end of the book and trust me, if you blink you'll miss it. In fact, you're going to think you missed it because it's so insignificant and trivial that it is muddied up with all the rest of it.
There are two other books that cover some of this same territory and do it well - The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles and The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. Fowles' book is great for all the ways characters look different depending on context and perspective and Carey writes better than anything I've ever read about how a painter sees the world. Don't waste your time with this book. Go read Fowles and Carey instead.
on September 1, 2011
Kostova can be a talented writer. Because I liked everything about *The Historian,* I kept plodding through *Swan Thieves* hoping for the old magic.
The most annoying thing is the characters -- they are all exceedingly self-absorbed. The therapist feels entitled to act unethically and miraculously faces no repercussions. The gifted artist guy acts out of character in the end. And other characters assume that an inquiry to help a mentally disturbed patient means they all get to tell their own life histories in excruciating detail for days on end. (While I'm waiting to hear something intriguing about the mysterious, mute artist, one old girlfriend tells the therapist about how she likes to see herself in the mirror wearing expensive underwear, etc., etc., etc.)
The only likeable and potentially interesting character is a minor one -- a loving husband in the 19th century who helps creates the French postal system. His wife, an artist with whom we are expected to admire and sympathize, cheats on him for no good reason.
Artists can live compelling lives, such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo. But not the ones in this book. I kept hoping for an ending that would justify the antipathy that builds for all the characters, but the resolutions of various obsessions were unrealistic. And trite, with even a conventional pregnancy ending, a la Hollywood.
I really don't mean to be unkind to Ms. Kostova. I will always be grateful for *The Historian,* no matter what. But I would like warn people about *Swan Thieves* and recommend they just stick to Ms. Kostova's first book -- a classic.
on April 18, 2011
My first round with this book was listening to the downloaded version from Audible. I knew it would be a long novel because I burned 15 CDs while downloading it. I waited to listen until I had a nice time consuming project to work on and very much enjoyed the alternating point of views presented for different characters in each chapter. I was also grateful to hear the characters from the chapters set in France speaking with the correct accent, since I have no French at all. However, I wanted to be able to flip back and pick up the threads which were presented in earlier chapters and woven together in later ones. This doesn't work with a CD very well. I was just resigning myself to listening to the novel all over again when a friend took me to lunch and I loaned her the CDs instead.
Immediately I ordered the novel in hardcover from an Amazon seller. It arrived promptly and now I am reading all the chapters that relate to each character in chronological order. Not, perhaps, what the author intended. But having savored the casserole, I am now in search of the individual flavors. Much though I enjoy spoken books, there is nothing to compare with holding a book and leafing through pages to find all the clues.
This is a very well planned, well executed mystery with all the things which my father most detests in a book: written by a woman, plenty of detailed descriptions which enhance the settings (if you like that, or which slow the pace of the story, if you don't) and a carefully constructed portrait of an artist who will probably never be entirely understood by anyone with whom he comes in contact. Add to this package that every character is an artist in some way, that one story takes place in France just as Impressionism is beginning and that you really cannot guess how the ending ties into the introduction at any point during the reading. I found it tantalizing, intelligent, well-written and very satisfying.
on January 23, 2010
A brilliant artist is so distraught he attacks a painting in the National Gallery then stops talking, forcing his psychiatrist to puzzle out the mystery behind his obsession with this painting. Conveniently, he gives the psychiatrist permission to interview the people in his life before he goes mute. And conveniently, the ex-wife and mistress are both very informative, speaking in long, detailed chapters of their own, using exactly the same voice as the doctor.
Just getting over her passionate relationship with the romantic/manic artist, the artist's mistress inexplicably falls in love with the milk toast middle-aged psychiatrist, and the two quickly dismiss any ethical dilemmas this presents. They follow convoluted clues to discover the 150-year-old mystery behind the painting, and that knowledge miraculously cures the artist who begins to talk again. The secret isn't even interesting - a rehashed soap opera plot that has zero connection to the artist personally. The author never really explains his obsession, nor the doctor's drive to travel all over the world to help this particular patient.
The painting in question is Leda and the Swan. I expect we are supposed to see a parallel between the artist of the painting (who had relations with two men, then bore a child) and Leda (who bore the children of two lovers simultaneously, one being the swan-disguised Zeus). So why does she paint a terrified Leda being attacked by a menacing swan when she herself welcomed both lovers and when every other painting of Leda shows her at peace, or even smiling? The cover art, in fact, is Picot's version which shows a smiling Leda. Sadly, the author has missed many opportunities such as this to develop the story into something worthy of the reader's time.
on January 27, 2010
I loved the Historian and so I looked forward to the author's second novel - particularly given the subject matter involved a historical mystery with a female painter in the impressionism movement. I have always enjoyed impressionist paintings, and so I was particularly excited to read this book. Unfortunately, it was BORING. The characters were not interesting...the plot line moved incredibly slowly. Reading the book felt like a chore - there was no enjoyment whatsoever. The most interesting part of the book was in the last 50 pages, but even then, it was not enough to redeem my overall sentiment about the book. Save your money and time - don't bother reading this book!
on February 6, 2010
I was so excited to purchase a copy of Kostova's new book. The Historian was so full of history and exotic places and mystery. This book has history and art in the background. The psychiatrist needs help with a patient who is an artist, with violent tendencies, but not speaking and therefore the doctor does not know if the artist is safe to leave the hospital. The doctor interviews the ex-wife of the artist to obtain some help about the patient and his past history and reactions to drugs, etc. The ex-wife, a working busy single mom of 2, agrees to give a short interview. So, pages later, we are hearing from the ex-wife about the intimate details of their meeting, romance and marriage. It goes on and on, and I just don't need these details about their first meeting while she is looking for an expensive gift hat for her mom, who would never wear such a thing. The details of the marriage spats and fights after their first child was born are very painful, but this was supposed to be a short interview about reactions to drugs, past behavior to help the doctor with the patient. Where is the exciting part about art, history, locations, etc? I'm not sure I will finish this book as it drags on without redemption (so far), is about a painful relationship, and seems so contrived. I miss the Historian.