Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review - The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I didn’t read Elizabeth Kostova’s runaway bestseller, The Historian. Someone told me the writing really wasn’t too good, and I took her word for it rather than checking it out for myself. At any rate, I tend not to trust debut novels. No, that might not be fair, but too many of them have let me down too many times for me to spend precious reading time on something less than stellar.

Nevertheless, when Kostova’s second novel, The Swan Thieves was published, I read about it online with great interest. The story seemed to be one I’d really like to read, and when I saw the book on the bargain table at my local supermarket, I couldn’t resist.

The Swan Thieves revolves around fifty-two year old psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, the director of a private clinic in the Washington D.C. area called Goldengrove. Marlow’s day-to-day life is interrupted when he agrees to care for Robert Oliver, a mental patient who refuses to speak. A brilliantly talented painter, Robert was arrested at the National Gallery in Washington when he attempted to damage a somewhat obscure 19th century painting of Leda and the Swan.

Every psychiatric patient should have a doctor as dedicated to his work as Andrew Marlow, who just happens to be a painter himself when he isn’t practicing psychiatry. This is a man who goes far above the call of duty. In fact, some of the things he does seem very definitely in violation of medical ethics and can cause the reader to lose sympathy for an otherwise very sympathetic character.

In one section of the book, Marlow journeys by car to the North Carolina home of Robert Oliver’s ex-wife, Kate. Kate, who at first is reluctant to speak with Marlow, eventually tells him everything about her life with Robert, including the intimate details, details Marlow didn’t need to know and details the reader didn’t need to know. Kate isn’t a very interesting or sympathetic person, but that would have been okay. The problem is that Kate’s section of the book, which occurs around the middle, returns us to the beginning of Robert Oliver’s story, and the whole thing bogs down. I found myself rushing through, wishing Kate would just finish with what she had to say.

Then, there’s Mary. Mary’s another pivotal woman in Robert Oliver’s life, one with whom Andrew Marlow feels he needs to make contact, and make contact he does, in the most coincidental of ways. Like Kate, Mary is reluctant to speak with Andrew Marlow at first, but also like Kate, her reluctance disappears once she and Marlow meet, and she ends up telling him every intimate detail of her life with Robert Oliver. And, once Mary begins her story, the reader is once again returned to the beginning of Robert Oliver’s story, and once again, the book bogs down. Mary’s section is even less interesting than Kate’s, and even though I did read every word, it was tough going. Oh, and like Andrew and Robert and Kate, Mary is also an artist. (sigh)

This constant return to the beginning of Robert Oliver’s story might not have been so annoying if Kostova would have given her characters different voices. As it is, each character sounds exactly the same, and each character sounds like a pretentious jerk. The one exception is Andrew Marlow’s father, who is a wonderful character, but who sadly, appears only in a chapter or two.

The three examples below are those of fifty-two year old Andrew Marlow, the thirtysomething, rather punk, Mary, and a 19th century French painter. See if you don’t agree that it’s impossible to tell one from the other:

The morning was gray with mist, clearing in uneven patches overhead to show pellucid sky, the evergreens full of crows and cobwebs, the birches already turning over a few yellow leaves.

I lay awake for hours...feeling and hearing the spruces, the hemlocks, the rhododendron scraping at the partly open window...the burgeoning of nature that did not seem to include me.

The landscape is as lovely as I remember from our visit…. The hills are just greening now, and the horizon looks gray-blue, without those fluffy midsummer clouds.

It’s lovely writing, to be sure, but no one really speaks or writes that way to another person, let alone a middle-aged psychiatrist, a punk artist with purple hair, and a woman in 19th century France. Kostova’s failure to differentiate among the voices of her characters is one of the book’s major failings. (I’ve since learned that it’s one of the major failings of The Historian as well, however in that book, it’s not quite as irritating.)

Threaded throughout the present day narrative is the story (the most interesting in the book) of Beatrice de Clerval, again, a painter (what else?), but one who lived in 19th century France. Her story is told primarily from the bundle of old letters that Marlow finds in Robert Oliver’s possession.

Despite the problems with The Swan Thieves, I didn’t really dislike the book. With the exception of Kate and Mary, I enjoyed being in the company of the characters, in particular, Beatrice. And while Kostova doesn’t have much of a knack for creating characters, she does have quite a knack for evoking time and place. However, the ending of the book was far too neat and "pat." It was a very easy resolution to a very complex problem. After setting her readers up for a big surprise, Kostova ultimately lets them down with a thud. I was very disappointed, and I think many others will be as well.


Recommended: No, not even for those who loved Kostova’s debut novel.

Paris Is Terrific!

Sebastien and I landed at CDG a few days ago, then took the Metro to our apartment on the Rue Singer in the 16th arrondissement (an apartment I inherited from my grandmother). It was heaven to be home, but Sebastien and I are really "Southern folks," who love Provence and the coast. So, after a few days of exploring Notre-Dame, Sacre Coeur, the Louvre, and other places, and after a full day of browsing at Shakespeare and Co., we're going to rent a car and drive through Provence (by way of Lyon) and then...into Tuscany! We just got our expensive, super duper video camera in time for our trip!

I wrote part of my review of Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves on the plane and hope to post it soon.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On Hiatus in Europe

Sebastien and I are flying to Paris tonight for a road trip through Provence and Tuscany.

On hiatus for about two weeks. If I can post from Europe, I'll do so.

In the meantime, thanks for reading and see you soon.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Book Review - The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters’ Booker shortlisted fifth novel takes place in 1947, when Britain was in the process of healing its wounds after the war and when the old, aristocratic families were crumbling faster than the manor houses in which they lived.

It is to one of these beautiful-but-decaying manor houses that Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged bachelor with a medical practice in rural Warwickshire, is unexpectedly called.

When Faraday arrives at the house, known as Hundreds Hall, he finds his patient is not a member of the family as he’d expected, but a fourteen-year-old servant girl named Betty, instead. Faraday realizes immediately that Betty is malingering, and though she, herself, admits as much, she does tell Faraday that there is something evil in the house, something definitely to be feared.

Strangely, though Faraday is certainly not of the aristocracy himself and he is not the Hundreds’ family physician (they find it more economical to simply not take ill) this is not Faraday’s first visit to Hundreds Hall. His own mother had been employed as a nursery maid at Hundreds, and Faraday had, as a child, attended an Empire Fete at the house, when Hundreds was in its full bloom of Georgian glory. While his mother helped with the washing up, one of the maids smuggled the ten-year-old Faraday upstairs and the boy immediately fell in love with the house, even stealing a decorative acorn from the molding as a keepsake.

Now, some thirty years later, though Faraday is appalled by the decay and decrepitude to which Hundreds Hall has fallen, he seems no less enchanted to be inside the house once again. After seeing to Betty, he gratefully takes tea and cake with Hundreds’ owners, the dignified, widowed Mrs. Ayres and her two children, twentysomething Roderick, a wounded RAF veteran, who struggles to keep Hundreds going on the meager and dwindling income provided from its dairy farm and Caroline, his slightly older, sturdy, capable, no-nonsense sister. Despite the fact that the Ayreses are trying to hold onto the "old ways" even in the face of change, they are, for the most part, a charming family and one with whom the reader enjoys spending time.

It just so happens that Dr. Faraday wants very much to test a new form of electrical therapy that promises to strengthen muscles and strengthening muscles is one thing Roderick Ayers needs very badly. When the Ayres family tells Dr. Faraday that they couldn’t possibly pay for the treatments, Faraday offers his services free of charge. He wants only to write a scientific paper regarding the course of the treatment and the efficacy of his machine. When Roderick, spurred on by his mother and sister, reluctantly accepts, Faraday becomes a regular visitor to Hundreds Hall and he gets to know the Ayers family quite well.

It would be beyond cruel for me to reveal the plot of this engrossing and masterfully written book, but it gives nothing away to tell you that the incident involving Betty is only the first of many mishaps and tragedies involving the residents of Hundreds Hall. And with each new tragedy, Waters twists the tension of her novel ever tighter. She’s definitely taken a leaf from Henry James’ masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, but she’s twisted that leaf just as she’s twisted the plot of her novel and she’s made it all her own.

The narrator of The Little Stranger is none other than Dr. Faraday, himself, a very literal minded, unimaginative soul and one certainly not given to the flights of fancy that strike each member of the Ayres family, even the ever-so-practical Caroline. The further into the book we read, however, the more frustrated we become with Faraday. We begin to wonder just how much his view of things is tainted by his dullness and we ask ourselves just how reliable a narrator he really is.

The Little Stranger is a beautifully constructed book, wonderfully controlled, wonderfully (and genuinely) creepy, and replete with sensory detail. And though she refuses to spell everything out and tie every loose end, Waters does play fair with her readers. Those who pay attention will come away from the book feeling satisfied, though definitely uneasy, and that uneasiness will be a nagging uneasiness. This is definitely not a "comfort" book nor are its effects easily shaken.

I turned the final page with a huge "Wow!" and that’s something I rarely do. The Little Stranger may be Sarah Waters at the height of her powers as a writer. It’s definitely a perfectly written book, yet one that’s so "old-fashioned enjoyable" as well.


Recommended: Yes, especially for those who love a bit of mystery and psychological horror.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Book Review - Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

A friend told me "Green Beret" murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted in 1979 of killing his pregnant wife, Colette and their two young daughters, Kimberley, five, and Kristen, two at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina on February 17, 1970 now has a motion for a new trial being considered before the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia.

This is not the place for an in-depth discussion of Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt or lack of guilt or even his chances of getting a new trial. However, the discussion did lead me to reread Fatal Vision by Joe McGinness. Now, I’m not a "true crime" aficionada at all. Generally, I have no interest in "true crime." But Fatal Vision was and still is a special book. It reads more like a spellbinding novel than a non-fiction book about one of America’s most notorious family slayers and the man whose murder conviction has become the most litigated conviction in American history. Once you pick up Fatal Vision and begin reading, it’s very difficult to put the book down. The final sentence resonated with me years after I read it the first time, and I was as enthralled and horrified on rereading as I was the first time through.

Fatal Vision is an incredibly well written book. Joe McGinniss obviously knew his material and his subject extremely well. He did, after all, attend MacDonald's trial and even live in MacDonald's California condo. Better yet, he knew how to present that material and that subject so the reader gets to know them incredibly well, too. An intelligent reader finishes Fatal Vision knowing, beyond even a reasonable doubt, that Jeffrey MacDonald and only Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his pregnant wife, his daughter Kimberley, and his daughter Kristen. If one goes on to learn a little more about the facts in this case since the time Joe McGinniss wrote Fatal Vision, one becomes even more convinced of MacDonald’s guilt. Take just one aspect of MacDonald’s story. He claims four "hippies" broke into his home and killed his wife and daughters, three men and one woman. (The woman was, according to MacDonald, wearing knee-high boots, but his version of the color of those boots has run the spectrum over the years.) MacDonald claims that he was being attacked by all four of the "hippies" in the living room and at the same time he could hear his wife screaming, "Jeff, Jeff, why are they doing this to me," and one of his daughters screaming, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy."

Okay. But if four "hippies" were attacking MacDonald in his living room, and four people are the only people who broke into the very tiny MacDonald home as MacDonald has said many times, then who was attacking his wife and daughters? If all four attackers were busy fighting with MacDonald, why didn’t his wife gather the girls and run (there was a backdoor right through the master bedroom). And, it should be pointed out that while MacDonald's wife and daughters were the victims of overkill, MacDonald, himself received only very minor, non-life threatening wounds.

There are other, more complicated reasons why MacDonald’s story doesn’t wash with readers endowed with even the most casual of critical thinking skills, but they are far too complex to go into here.

Strangely, Jeffrey MacDonald, who has been in prison for a little more than thirty years now and who has long since had his license to practice medicine revoked, still has his followers who will go to the ends of the earth to proclaim either his guilt or his innocence, depending on whether or not MacDonald, himself took the time to write to them. His most vocal detractors are, strangely, women who still see him as the "golden boy" he once was, the brilliant and compassionate doctor, with the bright, shining future and the world at his feet. The fact that MacDonald married a Maryland woman several years his junior in prison in Victorville, California in 2002 doesn’t sit well with these women who used to live for the receipt of one of his letters.

Now, even Joe McGinniss found Jeffrey MacDonald to be a charismatic and, on occasion, a charming person, but McGinniss saw through this veneer, this fa├žade, to the heart of darkness underneath. I believe the women who wrote MacDonald before his marriage and are now spending their days on forums creating posts about what an "evil" man he is do see through the gloss of charm and charisma, but simply choose not to do so. Why MacDonald has this hypnotic hold on some people is beyond my understanding, even after reading Fatal Vision and getting a much better "look" at MacDonald. One woman even perjured herself and swore under oath in an affidavit that another, innocent man told her he was guilty of the murders. That man, however, never confessed to anyone, and it’s been proven that he was far, far away from MacDonald’s home on the night of the crimes. I guess these women simply like to keep their "golden boy" intact. It’s a strange phenomenon, and one I think Joe McGuinness could have predicted. But, back to the book because that's what's interesting.

Fatal Vision is a riveting, spellbinding, and ultimately, tragic book. It’s the story of a man who had it all – a stellar career in the Green Berets, a life in medicine, a life for which he had a brilliant natural talent, a caring and compassionate wife, who loved him dearly, two lovely and intelligent daughters, and the son he’d always wanted about to be born. It’s the story of how, in one fatal night, he destroyed it all. Joe McGinniss doesn’t know exactly why, but he is able to give us clues along the way. How those clues add up will no doubt be different for different readers. In the end, the only person who knows why Jeffrey MacDonald destroyed Jeffrey MacDonald and every member of his immediate family is...Jeffrey MacDonald. And he isn’t talking. At least not about that. My guess is he never will.

Even if you’re like me and true crime isn’t your cup of tea, I can’t recommend Fatal Vision highly enough. Once you pick it up, I think you’ll be hard pressed to put it down. The writing is as fresh and riveting as it was when McGinness wrote it, and since there is an outside chance that MacDonald may be granted a new trial based on prosecutorial misconduct by an attorney who was subsequently disbarred for embezzlement, among other things, it's still timely as well.


Recommended: Definitely. Even if you don't care for true crime, this book holds its own with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but in the case of Fatal Vision, nothing is fictionalized.