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.

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