Weighing in at nearly 600 pages, The Swan Thieves is a novel about obsession and art. It's also a story about love lost and found. The basic plot lines up like this: Robert Oliver is a well-known and somewhat eccentric painter who is arrested for going to the National Gallery, whipping out a knife, and tries to disfigure a painting there. Luckily, a guard stops him in time. After his arrest, he is put under psychiatric care, and his doctor, Andrew Marlow, wants to know why he did it. All he would say is that "I did it for her" and that he "did it for the woman I love." (20) After that, he doesn't say a word for a year, not to Marlow or to anyone. Marlow wants to understand not only what prompted Oliver to do this, but also why he refuses to speak. The only clues he has are some old letters, written in French (and which he has translated) to which Oliver seems greatly attached, and a painting of a beautiful woman, done by Oliver. Marlow's investigations take him back in time about 100 years, back to the France of the Impressionist period of art. There are actually three stories interwoven here: first, the story of Robert Oliver as told mainly by women who loved him; second, the story of Beatrice de Clerval, one of the writers of Oliver's letters, and third, about Marlow himself, and what he discovers about himself in his journey into Oliver's life.
Although the story grabbed my attention at first, for most of the first half of the book I waited for something interesting to happen. Then as things started to pick up in the second half, suddenly everything became very clear. It is throughout the second half of the story that the past becomes more involved with the present, where most of the action takes place. Although the reader doesn't really figure it out until the very end, I had this flash of insight and I knew exactly what had driven Robert Oliver crazy. Lo and behold, when the truth is revealed, I was right. And I hate when that happens.
Kostova lets many voices tell their own stories; however, once I started reading the various modern-day narrations, they didn't come across as individual or distinguishable from any of the other characters. And also, dialog just didn't ring true. In Kate's story, for example, which was a conversation between herself and Dr. Marlow, the dialog was stilted, filled with descriptions and verbiage that one person just wouldn't use with another in personal conversation. The same was true with Mary. I never really felt like I got to know anyone in this story, and I especially didn't think Marlow's character was believable or strong. Another negative -- after all of the time and energy I put into this book, the ending (with its explanations) didn't take very long, and just sort of zoomed right on up there.
Overall, the story was good, and the journey to the end was okay. I like books about people caught up in obsessions, and in that arena, the author did a great job. I loved Kostova's The Historian, but to compare the two wouldn't be fair. I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who enjoy love stories more than I do, and to people who like history interwoven with the present. Once again, however, I find myself swimming against the tide of people who were wowed with this book, so it's one of those you have to read for yourself rather than take my word for it. I do, however, predict it will be a bestseller very shortly.
This writer is rather "wordy" to say the least but having read "The Historian" I knew what to expect there. I really love her style and this book didn't dissappoint me. Her first book was a mystery with a little love story and the second is love with a little mystery.
I didn't love this book. Didn't hate it, but didn't love it. My disappointment may be greater because The Historian is one of my all-time favorites. I've read it 4 times. My expectations for Swan Thieves, therefore, were high.
Much of what I didn't like about it centers around how it begins. One of the central characters to the story - Robert Oliver - is rather one-dimensional until around page 70. He suffers from a mental condition, and how he develops the condition remains mysteriously obscure through the first third of the book. This mystery contributes greatly to his rather flat characterization in the beginning.
I could have overlooked this flaw, if the story justified it. But it didn't.
My second criticism has to do with Marlowe, the psychologist handling Oliver's case. He was OTT, again intentionally, which the story didn't seem to justify.
For example, he set it up so that Oliver had paints and art supplies while hospitalized. Since he was in hospital because he was thought to be a danger to himself and others, this development seemed unrealistic to me. I can't imagine leaving a "dangerous" person unsupervised with oil-based paints.
Next, Marlowe starts a process of investigation that takes him to another state and even overseas. OTT. The fact that he didn't use the phone to interview people wasn't explained very well; it was just odd.
Third, Marlowe appears to have his own issues, which I don't want to give away. But neither do I think they were well-developed. It was a sub-plot at best. But I never understood why Marlowe had the issues he has.
Finally, Oliver just walks away at the end. Not cured. But somehow miraculously understanding his manic depression and how to deal with it. Again, it's unrealistic.
I give the book 3/5 stars. I liked the premise, the haunting mystery, the detail about art history - all pluses. But the flaws made me impatient to finish the book.
I read The Historian a few years ago and loved it, not being a fan of vampires at all. It intrigued me so I was looking forward to a similar experience with The Swan Thieves, especially since I'd just read The Luncheon of the Boating Party, and the two books shared a similar theme.....art and French Impressionism. I also hadn't read a "big" book in a while and wanted to settle down with a nice, long story. Well, it was long. I did not like the pace of this book, the character of Mary, or much else unfortunately. I got to about page 350 and started skimming to get to the end. A friend at the library told me the mystery did get resolved, so I plowed ahead and finished but was glad to be done with it. It makes me want to re-read The Historian to see if I had a lapse of taste....or the author did.
The Swan Thieves is Elizabeth Kostova's second novel, following The Historian (which I have read three times). Before anything else, I'm vastly impressed by Kostova's ability to balance the sheer volume of research and source material needed to tell this story. (Either book could easily double as a doorstop, flower press, or step stool.) I can't really talk about Swan Thieves without a nod to The Historian, which told the story of Dracula through layers of narration, via letters spanning centuries, as well as through an unnamed (?) first person narrator. (It's far more complex and interesting that it sounds, trust me.)
Kostova takes the same multi-layered approach in Swan Thieves. The story is relayed to the reader by multiple narrators, all funneled through middle aged psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow. Dr. Marlow has undertaken the treatment of a painter, Robert Oliver, who inexplicably snapped and attacked a painting at The National Gallery of Art. Once institutionalized, Oliver paints the same woman over and over, in various period garb, in a multitude of settings. In his search for the root of his patients psychosis, and the identity of his mysterious subject, Marlow seeks out Olivers former wife and lover, each of whom shares her story about life with Oliver.
This present day story is told alongside that of Béatrice de Clerval, a (fictional) late 19th century French painter and contemporary of Monet, and her relationship with her husbands uncle, also a painter. Each character in the story is an artist (of varying ability - Marlow dabbles, where Oliver is a master). Also featured is the myth of Leda and the eponymous Swan.
Although I dont believe Swan Thieves quite lives up to The Historian, it could be that I am prejudiced by the subject matter vampires are much more interesting to me than paintings. Its a good book, dont get me wrong, but its too long (as was The Historian), and the ending, complete with a heavily foreshadowed Snidely Whiplash-esqe villain, was a bit too quick and neat for me. It reminded me a great deal of A.S. Byatts Possession, although thats due to the stylistic layering of stories and sources, not the writing style.
It was a good read, but unlike The Historian, not a book that I'm likely to pick up again.
(This review first appeared here http://southerngirlinexile.blogspot.com/2010/07/elizabeth-kostova-swan-thieves.html)