I loved The Historian. I know others found it to drag or to be too long, but I enjoyed every second of that book. It scared the pants off me, and it fascinated me. As many fans out there, I waited anxiously for Kostova’s new book, The Swan Thieves. I began it Monday evening and finished it yesterday afternoon. At a hefty 561 pages, it is quite long. However, I really found this book to be absorbing. Even once I put the book down, the characters stayed with me, and I had to really think about several different areas I want to address in my review, so please forgive the sometimes incoherent nature of the following…
The publisher’s blurb:
Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, has brutally attacked a canvas in the National Gallery of Art. What would compel an artist to destroy something he values beyond all else? From the confines of his hospital room, Oliver maintains a stubborn silence, offering only the briefest explanation before he stops speaking altogether: “I did it for her.”
Andrew Marlow, an amateur painter himself and Oliver’s doctor, delves into the mystery of why Oliver attacked the (fictitious) painting Leda and the Swan by (fictitious) Gilbert Thomas, a 19th-century French painter and gallery owner. He originally takes on the patient out of professional curiosity that rapidly takes Marlow to the limits of his profession. Marlow is a solitary figure, past 50 and single. When told from his perspective, the action occurred 3 years prior, which can sometimes throw the reader. He contacts Oliver’s ex-wife and then his former lover who also narrate at times, trying to put the pieces of Oliver’s life and mania together and to determine the dark lady he paints obsessively, even maniacally. Along the way, Marlow finds Oliver has a strange and fierce fascination with 19th century letters between a woman named Beatrice de Clerval and her husband’s uncle, Oliver Vignal. The letters are in French, but he has them translated. The beauty of these letters was easily one of my favorite aspects of the story.
Not a traditional mystery, The Swan Thieves definitely has twists and turns; however, I knew the big “tada” moment long before it was revealed. It wasn’t difficult to determine, and it was somewhat annoying that Marlow never commented on these pivotal letters pieced throughout the main narrative. It also reminded me of a more high-handed version of these rampant Da Vinci Code narratives, where privileged people run around, buying exorbitant plane tickets and traveling at the drop of a hat. It seems unrealistic to me, and not just because I’m broke and jealous (wink). Marlow also completely crosses the line of ethical behavior and not once does anyone call him on it.
The character in whom I was most interested – Robert Oliver – was also conveniently clipped at the end. After the second quarter of the book, he seems to become unimportant to Kostova’s plot and is left in the dust. This enigmatic painter whose presence I keenly felt seems to almost become a plot device, a way for Kostova to advance her main story and a platform for Marlow to become the sometimes unlikable protagonist. Yet, Oliver is the one I want to follow. For a year, he sits in Marlow’s presence, mute, painting and sketching, clearly tortured; Marlow says he is attempting to help Oliver but later admits to himself and the reader he no longer has him at the forefront of this journey. Then, once the mystery is gone, Oliver speaks, and bam! No more Robert Oliver. Maybe it is simply because I am surrounded by creative people, all artists in their own right, but I was able to sympathize and identify with Robert Oliver. His passion, his obsession are what he cares most for; people get in the way of that and can become liabilities. It’s an interesting examination of what a creative life can be like – lonely, exhausting, and many times, masochistic. I felt Kostova shortchanged herself and her character by leaving him off so easily.
Also, let’s talk about framing devices. They can be useful, sure. I’ve seen them very artfully done although for the life of me, I cannot think of any at the moment. That said, Kostova’s two-page framing device is jarring and completely unnecessary. The painting at the top of this post is the key. She brings in a painter, who, although never identified within the frame, is clearly Sisley from the references in the text. However, I had to re-read the last two pages several times to figure out to whom the narrator shifts focus and why. It certainly didn’t add to the story for me, and frankly, I don’t think framing devices work when 557 pages come between the intro and conclusion. Sorry. This small rant brings me to – yet again – my biggest pet peeve with publishers today. Where the heck are the editors? Why aren’t they picking up on these issues? Why didn’t Kostova’s editor sit down with her and say: Look honey, great story, but cut the bunk, get back to the characters and for Pete’s sake, get rid of that awful framing device? There is no shame in revising and editing. Every good writer should do it. It may suck. It may be difficult and time consuming, but in the end, it pays off.
What, then, does Kostova do right? The woman can write. With a novel this long, I often find myself skimming, but I absolutely love Kostova’s writing style. She depicts countryside and painting and mania in beautiful, eerie ways that set the tone artfully. She also develops characters in such a way that I honestly had to look them up to determine if they were at all based in reality (they’re not). As I said earlier, I lived with this book even outside of the reading, and I think that’s the key. Even Caillet, a minor character who appears only in one scene, is fully and completely developed in my mind. For that, I will continue to await and then savor Kostova’s next book.
In the meantime, I’d really like to know: Does anyone else out there have the same pet peeve with editing in contemporary fiction? If there aren’t enough of them out there, I am throwing myself at ya! Where are the editors?
Other reviews (and now I see others agree):