Monday, January 11, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Copyright 2010
Little Brown - Fiction
565 pages

I finished reading The Swan Thieves a couple of days ago and I've had to let it roll around in my head a bit. I'm not even certain I can fully express how I feel about it, but I'll give reviewing the old college try.

First of all, you should know that this is my first Elizabeth Kostova read. I haven't read The Historian and I resisted reading it for a very long time, simply because: a) it's a chunkster and b) it didn't sound like my kind of book. I've been scolded about that, a good bit, but we'll worry about whether Bookfool will get around to reading The Historian some other time.

The Swan Thieves tells the story of a psychiatrist who goes over and above the call of duty in seeking out answers to a troublesome patient's depression and anger. When Robert Oliver is brought to Goldengrove (a live-in psychiatric facility) after attempting to attack a painting with a knife, he speaks to Dr. Marlow briefly and pretty much says, "Feel free to ask anyone you want to about my problems." Then, he ceases to speak. Oliver is a painter (Artist #1) and Dr. Marlow finds his attack on a painting baffling. Marlow is also an artist (Artist #2). He brings Oliver paints, brushes and an easel in the hopes that resuming his painting will help Oliver open up, but he gets absolutely nowhere. A set of letters written in the late 19th Century, which Oliver reads repeatedly, add some additional clues while simultaneously managing to muddy the waters.

Eventually, Marlow decides to take Oliver up on his offer to interview whomever he pleases and Marlow contacts Oliver's ex-wife, Kate. Kate (Artist #3) says she really doesn't want to talk about her ex, but then she does an about-face and tells him their story in gory detail, all the way from the time they met (which, I agree with Katherine, is totally forced and screamed "plot device") to their divorce. In Kate's house, Marlow finds some clues to Oliver's obsessive, repetitive painting of a particular woman, but he still has no real answers and eventually moves on to interviewing yet another painter (Artist #4 -- really, a little variety in the characters would have been just dandy) and the next woman in Oliver's life, Mary.

Here we toss in something else that I found rather uncomfortably implausible, but I don't want to give that away so let me just say . . . Mary sounds just like Kate, who sounds just like Marlow in that everything she says -- and Mary decides to type up her story, rather than telling it in person as Kate did, which doesn't change things a bit -- is told in excruciating detail, through the eyes of an artist, and without bothering to leave out some cringe-worthy personal details that serve no purpose, whatsoever.

The gist: This is not a well-crafted novel. I like Elizabeth Kostova's writing in that it's evocative of the senses. At times, I enjoyed the detail; I was in the mood for a chunky book full of heavy description (very unusual for me). Normally, I wouldn't have gotten far but I wanted to know the answer to who the mysterious woman in the paintings was and why Robert Oliver was so obsessed.

But, the lack of distinction between the characters, obvious plot devices and a few "clues" that end up being fairly meaningless made the book a mediocre read. At the end of The Swan Thieves I realized the mystery wasn't all that mysterious -- I'd done a pretty good job of figuring everything out by about page 200. There were also a few bizarre little let-downs. There is, for example, a character named "Olivier" in the book. I anticipated a connection between Oliver and Olivier. Could they have been related and Robert's last name Americanized? What if Oliver was the reincarnation of Olivier, thus giving Robert a reason that a long-ago romance haunted the young artist?

Well, no. Nothing that exciting happened. In fact, Olivier turned out to be a given name rather than a surname. It would have been better, I think, had there been a connection between Robert Oliver and at least one of the characters from the past. And, the ending . . . oh, my gosh. The ending really kind of ticked me off. I've decided I won't put up a spoiler alert and mention the ending but I think I can safely say that it was just flat ridiculous and confirmed my lingering suspicion that one of those transparent plot devices was the refusal of Robert Oliver to speak. There wasn't any valid reason for him not to speak. He could have just told the psychiatrist everything that it took 565 pages for Marlow to unearth.

So, I guess I felt a little used. But, I still enjoyed the book. Go figure. The only thing that really bugged me, all the way through the book, was that every key character was an artist and every key character sounded exactly the same. And, then, of course the ending . . . in the end, the psychiatrist didn't actually do the job of a psychiatrist but he still managed to perform a miracle by talking to everyone but the patient and figuring out what was eating him.

3/5 - Average. The detailed descriptions are lovely if you're in the mood to have someone throw an encyclopedia of art and nature at your head, but this author needs to work on giving her characters more distinctive voices and make sure that each scene has a purpose. There was way too much superfluous information -- clues that didn't actually mean much of anything at all and heavy detail that quite simply ought to have been cut.

Bear in mind that I still enjoyed the book. It's just very flawed, in my personal humble opinion.

This is the first of about a squillion reviews I need to write. I think I may do a few slap-dash, quickie reviews in the coming days, just so that I can avoid skipping any of my recent reads entirely but spend a little less time agonizing over reviews than I did on this one. This review took forever to write. Ask Kiddo. He keeps walking into the room to say, "Are you still working on your review?" Yes, and nobody's paying me. Maybe I should give up blogging and become a productive citizen.


Happy Monday!


  1. Oh, I'm sorry to see you didn't like it more than that. I'm on page 427 and so far, I'm loving the story and the writing.

  2. Kathy,

    I did like the book or I'd have never made it to the end, since I'm not a big fan of chunksters. I was afraid I wasn't expressing that well enough. I just thought it was mediocre from a structural standpoint. I would never read it a second time, though.

  3. That's a bummer.I'll probably skip it then cause I LOVED the Historian so much. :) Plus I have enough of my own chunksters to read. :)

  4. I have been wondering about this one. I did enjoy the Historian but it took me forever to get to it due to its size.

  5. Krista,

    Well, I still liked the book. I just felt like it had a lot of flaws, from a writerly standpoint, you know? You might still want to give it a try, someday.


    Yeah, exactly. It's hard to get to the fat ones; you know what I think about chunksters. They totally put me off. But, I've been in a chunkster mood and I enjoyed it because I was in the mood to be assaulted by words. Otherwise, I think I would have made it about 100 pages, at best.

  6. Hmmm. Now I don't know. I was looking forward to this one because of The Historian...

    Wonder if my library will have it.

    And, I'm not sure if The Historian would be your kind of book or not. It is dark, moody, and definitely creepy in parts but if you like vampire stories, I can't imagine a better one.


  7. :( That really upsets me. I had really high hopes for this one. I'm still totally going to read it :p But The Historian was so well crafted and you can tell that she spent ages on it...I almost can't help but think that she cranked this one out as fast as her publishers wanted her to to ride on the success of The Historian. Although it has been a few years now since The Historian was released. Great review though Nancy!! I'm still looking forward to it!

  8. LOL! I felt exactly the same way about The Historian. LOTS of words, not much development of story or characters, huge lack of general coherence in the story. PLOT HOLES, trite plot devices...

    Yeah, thanks for the review, but I won't be reading this one. Heh. Although, given how many people raved over the Historian, it's kind of nice to see that there's at least one other person out there who thinks she's still a very immature writer.

  9. The reviews do seem mixed on this book, which has me stalling a bit before I take the plunge. So sorry it wasn't better for you.

  10. I find I often like a book despite its flaws, as you mention, but the flaws are always distracting, allowing those critical little voices in your head room to interfere.

    I loved The Historian and will probably give this one a chance, but I think I'll wait a while and not rush into it.

  11. CJ,

    I don't know what to say to people who loved The Historian, since I haven't read it and can't compare. I still enjoyed The Swan Thieves, though. I wouldn't avoid it just because Bookfool was aware of plot devices and thinks the author needs work. At the very least, you could give it 100 pages, right?

    I still don't know whether or not I'll ever get to The Historian. When it came out, I didn't read vampire novels at all, ever. Then I found Colleen's books and I've branched out a little, but they're still not a favorite subgenre. I like a little creepiness but too much dark and dreary isn't good. I need sweetness and light. I'm weird that way. :)


    Bear in mind that I'm really picky, okay? I think you'll like The Swan Thieves. In fact, I think a lot of research went into it; the problems I had were with the voices, some obvious plot devices, and a few clues that didn't ever really seem to mean much of anything. I still think you'll love it, though.


    Oh, thank goodness. I was starting to feel like a pariah for saying the author needs work. I'm still waffling about whether or not I'll read The Historian, even though I definitely don't think Kostova's what you could call "skilled" (a good researcher, yes).


    I think it's going to be very much up to the individual how one feels about The Swan Thieves. I know there are people who love it because I've seen some positive chatter on Twitter. And, I was in the mood to be buried in words, so I enjoyed it even though the writing wasn't as good as expected. I'd recommend you check it out from your library and at least give it a try, if you're interested in the storyline.


    That's it exactly -- I still enjoyed the book in spite of its problems and the fact that they did pull me out of the story to ponder, on occasion.

    It'll be fun to see what you think of The Swan Thieves, when you get to it. I feel kind of awkward reviewing a second book for an author whom everyone else seems to have read, since I have no basis for comparison between the two books.

  12. The cover is captivating though... I am just in awe with it, but I guess I won't be picking it up. Damn, how did that woman get a Nobel Prize... Is this like a really early work?

  13. I'm playing catch-up too and reading a chunkster that has a plot device I'm not too sure about. I think I will pass on this book.

  14. Hmmm, not sure if I could make it through myself. All those artists! I love artists, but that's overkill.

  15. Harry,

    I looked and I don't see anything about this author getting a Nobel prize, although she got a prize for The Historian as a work-in-progress. The Historian was her first book and this one's her second. I noticed that Katherine (I linked to her review) thought Kostova suffered from sophomoritis. It's not unusual for a second book to be a letdown, you know?

    The cover is definitely a grabber. And, I did enjoy the book; I just thought it was flawed. I'm not the typical reader, so I'd recommend you don't give up on it just because of my review. I love your new profile image, BTW. Nice pic!


    I'll have to dash over to see what you're reading. I think you do have to be just a wee bit more careful with those big old chunksters. I don't regret reading The Swan Thieves, even though that ending made me want to hit someone, but a fat book is a big time investment.


    My sentiments exactly. I think it would be awfully unusual for an artist patient to end up with two lovers who are also artists and an artist for his psychiatrist, myself. Somewhere in there, there ought to have been some characters who didn't paint -- both for the sake of realism and to break the monotony.

  16. I've been waiting for a review of this one, as I enjoyed the Historian. I appreciate your honest review! I think I'll still be reading it, but it'll be a while before I can get to it.


  17. Amy,

    I'm relieved to find that there's someone I didn't scare away from this book. Honestly, I enjoyed it in spite of its problems. I hope you do, too. :)

  18. Thanks for this review. I had this at the top of my list but I'm going to skip it now. There are too many other good things to be read right now!

    Life by Candlelight

  19. I really enjoyed The Historian and have been looking forward to this one as well, but reading your review has tempered my expectations a bit - which is a good thing!

  20. Amy,

    You're actually one of the few people I thought might enjoy the book, as I was reading it, simply because of your art history background. But, yeah . . . no hurry. When you work in a library, I suppose you hear an awful lot of books calling your name at once. :)


    That's how I often feel. I'd rather someone lowered my expectations if I'm ridiculously excited about a book, so that I don't go in thinking, "This is going to be brilliant!" and then end up feeling let down. I did enjoy the book, but now I have to wonder if The Historian has similar flaws that most people just overlooked because they liked the story. That's not a bad thing. It's great to be swept away and willing to ignore a book's flaws.

  21. I tried really, really hard to read The Historian but I couldn't get past page 200 without wanting to throw it against the wall. Sorry this was only an average read for you though!

  22. Just finished this book, and I feel very let down. I actually loved reading this entire book, in spite of the, I agree, transparent literary devices and the lack of depth to the characters.... but the ending, oh. I was expecting, I'm not sure what, but something more.

  23. Ladytink,

    Thanks. I'll call that "fair warning". :) I enjoyed The Swan Thieves enough to keep the wall and the book safe from each other, but I wouldn't personally nominate the author for any awards for her writing, if you know what I mean. Not that anyone's asking me.


    That is exactly what I was trying to say. I was aware of the flaws but I still had a great time reading the book. If she'd ended it better, I have a feeling I would have rated it higher in spite of its problems. But, the ending . . . oh, man. That was wrong on so many levels.

  24. Seems like this is one of those books people either love or hate. I enjoyed The Historian so will probably give this one a try.

  25. Stephanie,

    I neither loved nor hated the book. I saw it more as a nice diversion that was flawed. It was an average read, IMHO. If you loved The Historian, it's definitely worth a try.

  26. Great review. I have this one on my TBR list. Too bad you didn't like it more. I like hearing about the flaws of a book though. Mostly I have read how brilliantly perfect this book is, which is rarely ever the case for any book. I like both sides of the equation most of the time.

    Like you, I am behind on my reviews. I haven't been in an inspired, writing mood. I think it is because my personal life is kind of all over the place right now and I can't concentrate.

    Don't give up blogging, though! I love your blog. :)

  27. Rebecca,

    I'm glad you like reading about a book's flaws -- I like that, too. I love a review that points out some flaws with the good, so I know what I'm getting into. I've bought some rather awful books based on overly enthusiastic reviews.

    I'm glad I'm not the only person who's been feeling uninspired. I'm trying, but I haven't even managed to go blog-hopping, yet (and this is going to turn out to be the worst reading month I've had in a year -- actually, maybe that will help me catch up on reviews, eventually). Same here -- grieving is definitely a personal issue that throws me off my game. I hope things improve for you, soon.

    Aw, thanks. Not giving up. If necessary, I'll just ditch the least important reviews and move on -- not those I've taken on for publishers/publicists, but the books from my own shelves.

  28. Anonymous8:30 AM

    AGREED. I was so captivated by the book I read it in 3 days, couldn't wait for the revealing ending and then.....nothing. I feel used as well.

  29. Anonymous,

    Exactly. Such a huge let-down it's still stuck with me. I couldn't believe that ending. I still can't talk myself into reading The Historian.

  30. I was listening to the audiobook and it turned out I didn't have all the chapters (unless it was ending really strangely). Could you actually tell me the ending, cause I couldn't find it anywhere? Marlow is in Paris visiting Henri Robinson, and he wishes he had his letters in English, cause he wanted to find something there. He promises to call back in the eve.


    1. Ella,

      It's been two years since I read The Swan Thieves, so I'm afraid I don't remember how it ends. Sorry!

    2. No worries :) I guess it wasn't anything extraordinary then :)

    3. Yeah, I was in the mood for a wordy book but it wasn't particularly memorable. I don't know if I'll ever read the author, again.

  31. Anonymous9:00 PM

    Listened to audio. Enjoyed all the voices except Mary's. The end was a letdown...very contrived.

  32. Maybe I wasn't playing close enough attention but who was the artist at the end looking out the window? Sisley? Gilbert Thomas?

    1. Sorry, I can't help. It's been over 8 years since I read The Swan Thieves.


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