16 January 2012

Review 6: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

"Dr Andrew Marlow has a perfectly ordered life, full of devotion to his work and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned artist Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery and becomes his patient. As Oliver refuses to speak, Marlow's only clue is the beautiful haunted woman Oliver paints obsessively, day after day. Who is she, and what strange hold does she have over this tormented genius? Desperate to help, Marlow embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver, and to a dark story at the heart of French Impressionism - a tragedy that ripples out to touch present-day lives."


This doesn't live up to the extremely high standard of Kostova's previous novel and is far too lengthy and wordy but is still an interesting read. I enjoyed the development of the characters, particularly the story of the 20th century French painter and and the final few chapters as the pace picked up.


First Line: "Outside the village there is a fire ring, blackening the thawing snow."


I adored The Historian, Kostova’s debut novel, which was an atmospheric, tense and wonderful story about family, history and vampires so I was really looking forward to reading The Swan Thieves, her follow-up. Whilst I did like the book, it was somewhat underwhelming, in particular in comparison with The Historian. It has a unique and intriguing story with interesting characters but it is weighed down by its sheer length – it would have massively benefitted from being edited down to two thirds or even half the length. I really liked the end section but felt it was brought too quickly to a conclusion for the amount of build-up I had read through. I would have preferred there to be less build-up and more explanation of what had happened. It attracted a surprising amount of vitriol when it was published which I don’t think is warranted. I did enjoy reading it and I think that taken by itself, not in comparison to The Historian; it works well as a human mystery story with its focus on the art world something I enjoyed as someone who doesn’t know a lot about it.


The Swan Thieves is the story of three people. Robert Oliver, an artist who has been arrested for trying to attack a painting at a gallery in New York. Andrew Marlow, his psychiatrist as he tries to work out what brought Robert to his attack. The other person is an early twentieth century French artist, Beatrice de Clerval who we initially learn about through a series of letters that Robert had with him and Andrew has translated from their original French. Andrew interest is piqued with Robert’s case as he is an amateur artist himself and he becomes emotionally involved in the case. Whilst Robert is in psychiatric care, he spends his time endlessly drawing the same woman and Andrew sets off to work out who she is. This journey leads him to Robert’s ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend before leading him back to Beatrice de Clerval as all the threads are tied up to explain what happened to Robert.

The main problem with this novel is its length and unnecessary detail. I found the basic story and characters appealing and interesting but there is just too much stuff to get through. The beginning got me interested and the end was exciting enough but there is a long, long middle section to get through which could have easily been condensed into half the number of pages. A common problem after successful first novels seems to be that the author has to spend less time with an editor. The first Twilight novel is not great but it is readable and fast-paced, from then on they get worse and worse until Breaking Dawn where Meyer seems to be allowed to just pour out all this drivel which manages both to be completely crazy and also utterly dull. Kostova has, thankfully, not quite descended to those depths yet and I feel I’m being a little unfair to compare it to the mess that is Breaking Dawn, but you can really feel the way that she seems to have been unrestricted by an editor. I got quite bored in the middle and ended up getting distracted by other books and only picked it up again when I was ill and in bed for two weeks with little to do. I’m glad I did finish it but it’s not a book that I would have been sad to miss.

Considering the main criticism is that the book is too long with too many conversations that don’t really lead anywhere, my other problem was how quickly the end was wrapped up. I wish Kostova had begun the finale earlier in the book as it gets interesting as Andrew travels to Mexico and Paris and it picks up pace. The reveal of why Robert attacks the painting is ultimately a clever and unique story and I wish there had been more time dedicated to explaining this than the long set up.

Ultimately, this is a novel of wasted potential. Kostova  has demonstrated her writing talent in The Historian and I liked the basic plot of the novel as well as learning a little about Impressionism as well. However it is too long and wordy with too many unnecessary and detailed conversations between characters meaning the story drags and I lost interest. I will most likely read whatever Kostova publishes next in the hope that it lives up to her undeniable potential.

Try it if you liked: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger or Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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