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Customer Review

248 of 311 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Plotless and plodding, January 13, 2010
This review is from: The Swan Thieves: A Novel (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 31 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 14, 2010 9:28:22 AM PST
Z Hayes says:
Thanks for the insightful review - I was seriously considering getting this as I loved The Historian, and you have convinced me to give it a pass! I can't stand books that are overly detailed for no reason.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 14, 2010 4:57:09 PM PST
Verita says:
I liked The Historian but thought it had too much detail, especially toward the end when the action should have taken precedence over the endless descriptions.

Posted on Jan 15, 2010 12:50:30 PM PST
C. Fanning says:
I agree completely: too much detail and padding about characters I don't care about, and the main character I want to hear from is silent (I'm more than half-way through). Maybe that's the payoff toward the end, that we finally get to hear from the only compelling character in the novel, but if so, it's a thin carrot she's holding out. And you're right about the voices, they all sound the same, even the male psychiatrist seems like a woman. If she hadn't labelled each chapter with the character's name, it might be tough to tell them apart. Super disappointing after her first blockbuster novel.

Posted on Jan 18, 2010 1:59:51 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Jan 18, 2010 2:00:16 PM PST]

Posted on Jan 18, 2010 2:02:06 PM PST
Reader says:
I am only a few pages into this book, but you have confirmed that my first impressions are correct. I, too, thought Marlowe was a woman. It was only when the narration started discussing the women he's loved that I then wondered... actually I thought that was just an indication that the main character was a lesbian. It had me flipping back through the first pages for any signs of gender. Something about the tone and his interaction with the other psychiatrist made me think he was a woman. And, there is no spark to keep me going. I LOVED The Historian, details and all, but it had a story that grabbed from the very beginning. This one does not. I think I will keep plodding along, and maybe I will end up liking it, but I am disappointed at the moment.

Posted on Jan 30, 2010 9:42:57 AM PST
Windiciti says:
Kostova's first book "The Historian," was exciting and erudite, but it flagged towards the end.
I know I will not be reading the new one. My patience with boring details and description has diminished considerably since "The Historian."

Posted on Feb 13, 2010 1:04:55 PM PST
Bella Rosa says:
I thought an overabundance of useless detail and indistinguishable characterizations were problems with the Historian, too. I definitely won't be trying this one.

Posted on Feb 14, 2010 11:02:43 AM PST
Hilda R. Noa says:
Yes, I also found this book to be repetitive and plotless. Kostova just went on and on about how tall and dirty he was, but how strangely handsome also. OK, I got it! How many times must I be told. Also, the person I wanted to hear from hardly spoke. I won't buy another of her books, since The Historian for me was just passable.

Posted on Feb 26, 2010 3:02:34 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 26, 2010 3:03:23 PM PST
Kona says:
I agree with all your comments! The amount of detail was so frustrating. It was as if each paragraph was an writing assignment: " Describe in detail, 100 words or more..." The basic story was good, but could/should have been told in 50 pages.

Posted on Mar 10, 2010 12:37:27 PM PST
Well said! I am a painter, formerly a clinical psychologist, and Paris is my favorite place in the world, so how could "The Swan Thieves" elude me? But it did. I got completely bored one quarter the way through and abandoned it. This rarely happens (you develop patience as a psychologist!) so I decided to read the reviews to understand why. Too much detail, too long and above all, no differentiation between characters not even characters of different genders, so you have to wonder about the author's depth of understanding of the human psyche. You nailed it. Thanks!
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