The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Painting by Sisley - at Musee d'Orsay

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):

Book Lady’s Blog

Devourer of Books

Michelle’s Masterful Musings


14 responses to “The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

  • Nishita

    What a lovely painting of Sisley’s. This must be the painting she has referred to in the book, right?

    I didn’t know the writing technique you refer to is called a framing device. See you always learn new things reading blog posts 🙂

    Great review, gave me a new perspective on this book

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      I think so. It’s the same town and from the description at the end – high village walls, snow, setting sun, dark tree branches – I’m pretty sure it is. It is quite beautiful.

      Thanks for commenting! I enjoyed your review too. It’s why I love blogging; I always get a slightly different viewpoint or perspective. It’s great.

  • iliana

    Great review! I really want to read her books but admit I put them off because they are chunksters. Isn’t that horrible?

    One pet peeve I have is when an author will use a foreign language to show the character knows another language or when they are supposed to be in another country, etc. I love foreign languages but my issue is when there are mistakes. Simple, mistakes that really stand out. I know Spanish so when I see writers using Spanish words to convey that their character is a native speaker or whatnot but make a lot of mistakes, well, that just takes me out of the narrative. I wish translated words/sentences were proofed a bit better.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      That’s not horrible. It’s a commitment, but as I said, I finished it relatively quickly and really enjoyed it despite the negative remarks.

      I don’t blame you. That would irritate me too. It irritates me because unfortunately, I don’t speak another language, so sometimes I feel like I’m missing something if I can’t read the language. I wish books were proofed better in general! (Even if my blog posts aren’t.) 🙂

  • the little reader

    i just picked up The Historian from our library sale and am looking for a gap in my reading schedule to fit it in! i’m fairly certain i will love it and will be picking up The Swan Thieves shortly after.

    thanks for the excellent review!

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Oh, I’m excited! I have given that book out so many times. It’s out on loan right now, but I want to re-read it. It had me looking over my shoulder constantly, and I loved it.

      They are so totally different that I cannot say I enjoyed one more than the other – just for different reasons.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Melanie

    My library has a copy of this, and I’ve been eyeing it on my last couple of visits there. It sounds like an intriguing novel!

    I wanted to let you know that I received the copy of Splendor that I won from your contest. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to read it. 🙂

  • NatalieTahoe

    I just finished The Swan Thieves last night, and I agree with your perspective that no framing device is needed after 500+ pages went by. I was exactly like you at the end, and felt confused on whose perspective it was written from, even though I was so trained at this point to look at the start of each chapter, that I did note that there wasn’t a character identified. Didn’t matter though, I still was asking myself whose perspective it was coming from. I concur completely — where are the editors?

    I also have to say that I did not think this was a psychological thriller at all. Suspenseful? Not so much, until maybe the last 20 pages, where it was sort of making me feel that maybe something big was right around the corner. The entire novel felt slow and sometimes I wasn’t very motivated to turn the page. To be honest, I only continued to read because I respected and loved The Historian so much that I didn’t want to not give The Swan Thieves a chance. And it’s the same reason why I will always read her books, solely for the incredible story from The Historian.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Yes, I noticed no character was named, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out who we were following and why. Then I remembered from the beginning, went back and re-read and figured it must have been Sisley.

      No – not a psychological thriller. Heck, Andrew didn’t even bother really treating Robert Oliver at all. I, like you, read because I loved The Historian but also because I wanted to find out why Robert Oliver was so disturbed by Beatrice. It still drives me crazy that his story line simply stopped.

      • NatalieTahoe

        You are spot on — Andrew didn’t treat Robert, he just would come in and sit down for a little bit, and that was pretty much it! How much better would the book had been had the story line included more of a analysis of the psychological discussions and attempts to pull Robert out of the depths of his obsessive misery and make him talk — I abhorred the ending when everything is just magically okay. Drove me nuts!

      • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

        ME TOO! When it said Robert began to speak and was released the next day, I was like: WHAAAA? No, don’t think so.

        Life doesn’t work that way, and I’m pretty sure mental illness doesn’t either. For such a great book, I felt that was a really cheap way out.

  • Matt

    I know I’m a little late to this party, but I just finished reading this book, and I could not be more frustrated that, after 560 pages, I’m not really sure why Robert is obsessed with Beatrice. Or why he’s painting her with Olivier’s wife dead in her arms.

    Any insight?

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Well, a. he saw the painting once and was deeply affected by it and b. the mania. It’s far beyond obsession, and I think Robert almost becomes part of Beatrice’s story (in his mind) and thus paints the awful scene revealed in the letters. Beatrice is horrified by Oliver’s story, though she won’t let on to him how much it upset her. Her face draws Robert in and haunts him, I believe.

      Also – as an artist, I think he identifies with Beatrice’s tragic story, that her work is never appreciated as her own, and he feels he has to right that for her somehow. (Please keep in mind these thoughts are long after reading, but this is what I most remember coming away from it with).

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