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The Swan Thieves: A Novel Hardcover – January 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
[Signature]Reviewed by Katharine WeberElizabeth Kostova made a dramatic debut in 2005 with her megabestselling The Historian. The first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list at #1, The Historian has been published in 44 languages, has more than 1.5 million copies in print, and there's a Sony film in the works. A hefty, quirky, historical vampire thriller that took 10 years to write and for which a reported $2 million advance was paid, The Historian has managed through sheer bulk and majestic grandeur to confer upon itself the literary weight of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, even as it offers up some of the easy delights and generic writing skimps that put it on the Da Vinci Code shelf.The Swan Thieves revisits certain themes and strategies of The Historian, chief among them an academic hero who is drawn into a quest for knowledge about the central mystery, only to develop an obsession that becomes the driving force of the plot. Each chapter marks a point of view shift from the previous one, with the narrative shared among a variety of characters telling the story in a variety of ways. The events range from the present moment back to the 19th century of the painters Beatrice de Clerval and her uncle Olivier Vignot, whose intertwined lives, letters, and paintings are at the heart of the story.This time out, Kostova's central character, Andrew Marlow, has a license to ask prying questions as he unravels the secrets and pursues the truth, because he is a psychiatrist. (Before Freud, genre quest novels depended on sleuths like Sherlock Holmes to play this role.) Even though Marlow comes across as a sensible, trained therapist, after only the briefest of encounters with his newly hospitalized patient, the renowned painter Robert Oliver, Marlow develops an obsessive desire to solve the mystery of why Oliver attempted to slash a painting in the National Gallery. Marlow is himself a painter, and the Oliver case has been given to him because of his knowledge of art. But Oliver is uncooperative and mute, though he conveniently gives Marlow permission to talk to anyone in his life before falling silent. Oliver's inexplicable behavior, which includes poring over a stolen cache of old letters written in French, triggers what I can only call a rampant countertransference response in Marlow, whose overwhelming obsession becomes a strange and frequently far-fetched journey of discovery as he persists to the point of trespass and invasion. Is this the crossing of the ultimate border promised by the ARC's jacket copy, the enactment of the fantasy of one's therapist developing an obsessive fascination that blots out all other reality?Less urgent in its events than The Historian, The Swan Thieves makes clear that Kostova's abiding subject is obsession. Legions of fans of the first book have been waiting impatiently, or perhaps even obsessively, for this novel. The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.Katharine Weber's fifth novel, True Confections, will be published by Shaye Areheart Books in January.
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"The many ardent admirers of The Historian will be happy to learn that The Swan Thieves offers plenty of the same pleasures." ―Washington Post
"A must-read for lovers of historical fiction....The Swan Thieves shows the same meticulous historical research and scene-setting description that elevated The Historian from a vampire tale to a work of art." ―Associated Press
"A compelling story....Fans of The Historian have been waiting a long time for a new work from Kostova. They won't be disappointed." ―Denver Post
"Kostova's eloquent prose possesses the power to both transport and inspire." ―BookPage
"Kostova knows how to craft a breathless ending." ―Entertainment Weekly --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
Top customer reviews
However, I still am delighted to have this book in my library and anxiously await her third novel to add to my collection by this gifted writer.
The Historian was a real page-turner, very suspenseful, with a masterful way of distinguishing each voice from the others, so you knew on every page who was speaking. With never less than 3 storylines at work at any given time, that was vital. The Swan Thieves is not quite as clearly delineated, so I agree with some reviewers that the voices might have been better defined. The Historian (at least in my Kindle edition) used quotation marks for one narrator, italics for another, and plain text for the third, so this visual device helped keep things clear throughout. Something similar might have been wise in this book as well.
However, once I started a chapter in The Swan Thieves, I always knew who was speaking. If I picked the book up after an absence, all I needed to do was look at the chapter heading. Not as clear on every page as The Historian, perhaps, but chapter by chapter, it was quite obvious.
My only quibble with this book was that I wanted a bit more clarity about how Robert Oliver became as obsessed as he did with that one image. What did HE see as his driving force? Mental illness in itself is not an adequate explanation, since most people who are mentally ill are QUITE clear what their reasoning is, even if that reasoning makes no sense to others. I know that Robert's silence was a key to the plot, but that was the one issue I was left dissatisfied about. It's a minor point for me, and I may resolve it by rereading the book.
At the same time, throughout the book there are numerous examples of thoughts left unsaid, relationships left not-entirely-defined, motivations that are not laid out for us, that we as readers must think about for ourselves. As one example, from a modern perspective, the 19th century romance seems unresolved, yet a little thought can provide an explanation for why things seemed satisfactory for the parties involved, even if we might not be happy with the same situation in our own lives, in an age when divorce is common and living together is acceptable to most people, when "reputation" seems irrelevant for the most part.
I think for me, a large part of the attraction of this novel is that it requires thought and a leisurely, patient willingness to learn more, to be guided, to allow things to unfold. This is not fast-paced, easily grasped action. Things are often not spelled out in every detail, which is part of its charm for me.
And in the end, things that are vague or mysterious can be more beguiling and resonant than stories that are clearcut, with only one possible solution and only one way of seeing things. All of the characters here are sympathetic, which in itself is no mean feat. I cared about all of them and wanted things to turn out well for them.
Another theme I saw in the book, that is not always comfortable, is this very notion, of time and age, and that sometimes, things simply do not work out for the best, people do not always get what they want. Which is sad and poignant, but also hopeful. Each of these characters crafts a life that ultimately works for them. Time moves on, and eventually, justice is served, the truth is known. Love does last. Not in a neat format we might expect from many best-sellers, but in a slow-moving, gently-told story. Gentleness itself is not highly prized in our society, and perhaps it should be. Several of the characters in this story are described as gentle, and qualities of under-statement are explicitly seen as appealing. Well, in an era such as ours, gentleness, respect and under-statement don't sell mouthwash, they don't play on reality TV, so we probably tend to ignore them or see them as weak or boring. This novel explores those qualities and the subtle nuances of what makes us love one person, and pass over someone else.
While I enjoyed The Historian, I loved The Swan Thieves, and I'm sure I will read it again. It might not suit every taste, but for me, it was one of the finest and most affecting stories I've ever read.