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Review: The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

Disclaimer: I couldn't finish this book. I barely made it past page 100, where I knew I had to stop.

I had such high hopes for this novel. I really enjoyed The Historian, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong with Kostova’s second book, a novel about Impressionism and psychology. I’m afraid she suffered a little bit from second-novel-itis this time, as she’s written a novel that left me scratching my head quite a bit. I loved the premise: psychology and art are two things that you don’t usually see thrown in together in a novel. It’s a different subject matter altogether from The Historian, but I was hopeful nonetheless. Oh, how it falls short of expectations. I found that I was struggling to work my way through this sleeper of a novel. And the fact that I just described this book as “work” should tell you a lot about what I thought. Novels should be pleasure, not work.

First, the author gives a lot of detail. A lot. Excruciatingly, extraneously so. Need directions from Washington, D.C. to Greenville, North Carolina? This book can get you there! In many novels, lots of detail can be good, if it's used in the right way, but here it was distracting—Kostova gives us the background stories of even the most minor characters! Even for the major characters, details of their backgrounds are casually thrown in, sometimes simply because it is convenient to the story. For example, Andrew Marlowe goes down to North Carolina to visit Kate, and he says that the reason he knows the Virginia area so well is that he was at UVA. Then he never really follows up on that. Many of the characters and their motives simply aren’t believable: in one scene, she has Kate walk into Lord & Taylor in New York City for a Christmas gift for her mother, only to tell her reader in the next breath that a) Kate can’t afford the merchandise and b) her mother hates Lord & Taylor! So why go in there in the first place? Oh, yes, because that’s where she happens to meet Robert—another advance-the-plot mechanism that just didn’t work for me.

Another problem I had was with the lack of tonality. All of the characters’ narrations sound exactly the same. In fact, had I not known from the get-go that Marlow was a man, I could have sworn that his character was female!

There are also some consistency issues and repetition: Andrew Marlowe tells us early on that he never does research on the internet, and then twenty pages on he says something to the effect of, “I should probably tell you now that I don’t like doing research on the internet.” But wait, didn’t he tell us that before? And all of the examples I’ve cited above are only from the first hundred pages or so; there are probably more examples of how ineptly this novel is written and presented to the reader.

This book lacks that “je ne se quois” that The Historian has. In this book, the art bits are well-written and descriptive, but this book lacked that “something else” that made me want to keep turning pages. I couldn't get emotionally involved in the story the way I did with The Historian; the book is nearly 600 pages, and for that length a book should be compelling enough to make me want to read on. This book sadly just wasn’t that for me. It's expecially disappointing considering that I had such high hopes for this book--after all, we've waited five years for it! I’m sure my opinion won’t be popular, but that’s just the way I see this book.

Also reviewed by: A Garden Carried in the Pocket, A Reader's Journal, The Book Lady's Blog, Bermuda Onion's Weblog, S. Krishna's Books


Muse in the Fog said…
This is the second bad review I have read for this novel :( Oh, I was so looking forward to it too. Thanks for the review, I will choose a different new release to purchase :)
Misfit said…
I for one appreciate seeing a critical review. Sounds like you were getting clubbed on the head with all the details.
These are fairly the same reasons I didn't like The Historian- Kostova is not the author for me, apparently. But thanks for this lovely critical review!
Serena said…
oh, my. This is a book I've had on my radar for some time. but excessive detail! UGh. O boy, directions to get me from point a to point b....I think I will skip this one...thanks for the honest review.
Bookfool said…
Great review! I liked the book, but I agree with absolutely everything you said. There were inconsistencies (I'd forgotten the trip to Lord & Taylor, but it did feel like a plot device to me) and the fact that all three narrators sounded the same was really bizarre. I can't imagine anyone talking like Kate did -- in such detail -- when she really just wanted Marlow to go away.

And, yet, I enjoyed the book. I'm not sure why. I guess I was curious enough about what made Robert try to attack a painting to keep going. The ending was a serious let-down -- almost deus ex machina, but not quite. It did wrap things up, but . . . but . . . well, it would be a spoiler so I guess I'll save that for my blog and use some fat red letters.
Kristen M. said…
I didn't really have these issues with the book -- except for the "doesn't use the internet" multiple mentions. But I figured that since I was reading an ARC, it was just something that would be caught in editing and wouldn't be in the final book so I didn't worry about it too much.

I'm sorry that you didn't engage with this novel! I got caught up in the story and enjoyed it -- certainly not as much as I loved The Historian but that was to be expected.
This is the 2nd time I've read about the tonality issue and the 2nd yuck review for this novel! Darn...I was really looking forward to it because I also loved The Historian.

Thanks for the honest review Katherine!
judy said…
Just to give another opinion, I finished The Swan Thieves last night and though I share some of your criticisms, in the end she won me over. I related to what I call the "Bob Dylan Syndrome", where the male creative artist gets away with all his bad behavior and the woman has to pick up the pieces. I also liked all the descriptive writing about painting itself, about the various paintings and the scenery being painted. Yes, it was long but I liked the pace, I thought the romance was realistic and she wrapped up all the loose ends, which I like in a mystery. But I am probably prejudiced because I love artists with all their foibles and revere what they do for the world through their art.

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