Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I was a little worried this book was over-hyped, but I liked it pretty well. A friend recently mentioned people either seem to love it or hate it, but in the spirit of obstinacy, I fall in between the extremes. I liked it pretty well but I wasn't bowled over.

I did not read The Historian so I can't compare the two. But oddly, a comparison that came to mind was The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. I know that comparison might seem odd, but they both are stories told through multiple points-of-view, contemporaneously and in the past, about ferreting out a secret that would significantly change the way certain things are viewed if it ever comes out, alongside of course finding love.
Briefly, the plot: after an artist, Robert Oliver, attacks a painting at The National Gallery, he is arrested and committed. His psychiatrist, Marlowe, is an artist as well, and determined to get to the bottom of Oliver's problems which seem to stem from an obsession with a woman. However since Robert refuses to talk, Marlowe has to do a lot of investigating to get answers.

Initially, I was worried about Kostova's main character being male. That rarely bothers me but this guy seemed really soft. However, with his artistic tendencies and his career in psychiatry, it did seem in the end to work. Though, unusually, the book was filled with men who'd long outlived women (Marlowe's father, Henri), not to mention how everyone today hates email and communicates by letter (Marlowe, his father, Mary, the translator - although Marlowe did ask her to mail the letters.) I'm not entirely sure why this was set in 2000 instead of in 2009 or 2010. The foreshadowing created by Marlowe's mentioning of "my wife" was effective if obvious, but that still could have been accomplished if the events had happened just last year. I don't know what that contrivance accomplished.

But overall, the mystery of the woman Robert was obsessed with kept me enthralled. The characters are well-drawn, the discussions of art were both accessible and yet not dumbed-down. There were a few eye-rolling moments for me but luckily they were far-between and minor. Ms. Kostova was effective at bringing to life the fringes of the French 1870s art scene, at describing the gradual consequences of manic-depression (though I don't know why she couldn't ever name it), and at capturing the burgeoning romance of Marlowe and his future wife (to continue the foreshadowing and not give away spoilers). Several characters are brought out for just one purpose, and then they just disappear, never to be heard from again (the translator, the colleague who'd recommended Marlowe take Robert's case, even Kate to an extent) and I wish there's been a little more balance to that structure, but that's a pretty minor quibble.

I think most readers will love this romantic mystery, peppered with art and obsession. I liked it quite a bit and it's really gotten me in a mood to read more art-centered books.


A Bookish Way of Life said...

Great post! I'm actually pretty excited about this book. I have it on my nightstand now and can't wait to dive in. I loved The Historian, so I'm hoping this one will be just as good.

Carin said...

I am so glad you liked this book. I've been waiting to buy it because I have so many books on my TBR list, but I LOVED The Historian (which you already know). I couldn't put it down. I will definitely be buying this in the next few months!

Kristen said...

I'm glad the book held up all the way through. I'm still waffling on whether I want to read it or not but I might be getting closer to a yes.

Booksnyc said...

great book - the length of it intimidates me! But I hear great things about it and The Historian. I have the audiobook - do you think its one that you really should read as opposed to listen to?

Carin Siegfried said...

It has a lot of really short chapters so it didn't read as long as it is, and it's written fairly simply as a little descriptive, so it doesn't bog down. Not sure how the audio would compare. There are no pictures or illustrations or anything in the book so you wouldn't lose that with an audio. If I were you I'd go to Audible or somewhere like that to check out reviews that were specifically about the audiobook to see if people like the narrator. Personally, I tend to prefer audios that are shorter.

Carin said...

@Booksync - I'm the "Other Carin" (not this blog's Carin), but I really enjoyed reading The Historian. Personally, I thought the books read really fast and had a fair amount of suspense. I would say that if you enjoy audiobooks and don't enjoy reading longer books, then give the audiobook a try. Otherwise, I think The Historian is completely readable and was one of my favorite books I read in 2007. I read about 3/4 of the book in about 2 days because I thought it was so good.