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Elizabeth Kostova – The Swan Thieves

March 19, 2010

28. The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova (2009)

Length: 566 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction / Historical Fiction

Started: 03 March 2010
Finished: 13 March 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I really enjoyed The Historian, and I’d seen mostly good things about Kostova’s new book as well.

Don’t get into knife
fights with a painting: What would
you say if you lost?

Summary: One day, a man wanders into the National Gallery of Art and tries to attack a painting – Leda and the Swan by Gilbert Thomas – with a knife. When he’s admitted to psychiatric care, Robert Oliver will only say “I did it for her,” and then refuses to speak again. Dr. Marlowe, his psychiatrist, must proceed from there, based on the very little he knows of Robert: he is also an artist, and quite a good one; he has a bundle of old-looking letters that date from the early French Impressionist period; and he paints the same beautiful and haunting woman over and over again. In his quest for answers, Dr. Marlowe will wind up travelling across continents and delving into the history of art, and the history of some particular painters from more than a hundred years in the past.

Alfred Sisley, "Snow at Louveciennes", 1878

Review: To start with the good points: Holy cow, can Kostova write some gorgeous descriptive prose! Describing painting has to be second only to describing music in terms of difficulty, but Kostova is so good at describing the various artworks that she mentions that even I, with my extremely limited artistic vocabulary, could picture them as clear as day. In fact, she describes the paintings so vividly that I spent a very frustrating fifteen minutes on Google before I realized that neither Leda and the Swan nor Gilbert Thomas were real. (Nor is Beatrice de Clerval nor Olivier Vignot. Sisley is a real historical figure, although the painting which opens the book is either fictitious or is mis-dated in the book.)

However, while the writing was lovely and full of vivid detail, this story itself was seriously in need of an editor. It’s an interesting idea for a story, and there are parts that move along well enough, but the simple fact is that there was simply not 500+ pages of story here. After a while, when Marlowe is hearing more details of Robert’s life, and he’s painting the mysterious woman yet again, and we get one more of Beatrice’s letters from the past, I just wanted to yell “Get on with it already!” (I felt the same way near the end of The Historian; during their 95th stop in some small village i their eleventieth Eastern European country, I started wondering if we were even getting close to the point.) In The Swan Thieves, large sections – especially those spent filling in Robert’s backstory without providing many useful clues to his condition – just dragged, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really care for any of the characters. I pressed on, wanting to know the answer to the mysteries that the book had set out, but when I finally got to them, I was let down. Not that they didn’t fit the story, just that they weren’t interesting or compelling enough to merit the 500-odd pages that it took me to get there. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely not a fast read, but for those looking for a slow and contemplative book with a focus on art and art history, it will probably fit the bill.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Alison’s Book Marks, Bermudaonion’s Weblog, The Book Lady’s Blog, Bookfoolery and Babble, A Bookworm’s World, Devourer of Books, Linus’s Blanket, Michelle’s Masterful Musings, My Cozy Book Nook, A Reader’s Journal, S. Krishna’s Books, Thoughts from an Evil Overlord
Have you reviewed this book? (I know I missed some.) Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Outside the village there is a fire ring, blackening the thawing snow.

Cover Thoughts: The painting on the cover is “Leda and the Swan” by François-Edouard Picot, 1832. Apart from the confusion that it caused when it didn’t match the description of the painting that Robert attacks (which is primarily my own fault for being dumb), I have no real problem with the cover, although the dot of white in the swan’s eye really stands out to my eye.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 18: “Robert’s clothes were stained with oil paint, smudges of alizarin, cerulean, yellow ocher – colors vivid against that determined drabness.” – a solid appearing reddish-orange as crystals and brownish-yellow as powder, one of the earliest known dyes.
  • p. 36: “The momentum of the great creature could have knocked her down, knocked her onto her back, perhaps, as she was rising from a nap en plein air.” – in the open air. (Oh, well, obviously.)
  • p. 255: “When she turned her face, the smudges under her crystalline eyes deepened, gray-blue, shadows on snow, an effet de neige.” – snow effect; a technique of impressionist painters.
31 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2010 8:41 am

    I enjoyed this one more than you did. It is long, but the writing is so gorgeous, I just didn’t mind.

    • March 19, 2010 12:39 pm

      bermudaonion – In another mood, I might not have minded so much, but at the moment I really just needed a book that was compelling enough to make me anxious for more… and this wasn’t that book.

    • Aussierose permalink
      March 18, 2011 8:01 am

      I heartily agree with Bermudaonion. I think we have all become too good at speed reading, and because modern books move along generally so fast, we fall into the trap of being bored with too much descriptive text. I enjoyed the book to a certain extent because it was slow moving and full of such ‘gorgeous’ writing. The plot and subplot got me in, and I have done some great googling just to explore further. Experienced a wonderful Impressionist exhibition last year here in Australia. Works from the Musee d’orsay which was absolutely mindblowing. I was excited to read a fiction set around the same subject. Great. 5+ stars out of 5 for me. I am looking forward to reading The Historian. But I have been warned, I will expect to travel slowly!

      • Aussierose permalink
        March 18, 2011 8:05 am

        Sorry, was that just like the book? A bit too wordy.

  2. March 19, 2010 12:25 pm

    I cannot tell you how pleased with myself I am for remembering the word that means describing art with words: ekphrasis. My high school Latin teacher would be so proud. Virgil: Another one who was good at describing art with his words.

    • March 19, 2010 12:39 pm

      Jenny – That’s an excellent word, and it’s totally going on my vocab list. :)

  3. March 19, 2010 1:15 pm

    I can definitely see how you wouldn’t enjoy this book unless you were in just the right mood, but I enjoy the trip Kostova takes me on in both books, it is just sort of a languid pace that I can appreciate if properly prepared.

    • March 19, 2010 1:36 pm

      DoB – I wonder if the difference in my reaction to this vs. The Historian had to do with the relative importance of history vs. characters to the story. So, in The Historian, while it did start to get a little repetitive, it wasn’t until near the end, and I was otherwise totally enthralled in the story and in solving the historical mystery. In The Swan Thieves, it seemed like the majority of the focus was on the present-day characters, and I didn’t find any of them likable or compelling enough to really keep me engaged in the story.

  4. March 19, 2010 1:40 pm

    I have this on audiobook and it is about 25 discs – yikes! But if the story is engaging, the length is not as relevant. Thanks for your review.

  5. March 19, 2010 2:49 pm

    Great and honest review! I bought a copy of this one even though I haven’t finished The Historian… it was good, but for some reason I put it down and forgot to pick it up again. I notice in your vocab there is some French. Out of curiosity, is there a lot of it in the book?

    • March 19, 2010 2:55 pm

      kay – Not a lot, no. It’s about the French Impressionists, so there’s a few phrases here and there, but nothing that’s crucial to the story or anything. I mean, I don’t speak French, and I understood what was going on just fine.

      • March 21, 2010 1:14 pm

        Okay! I was just curious :-) Since I speak French, I’m always excited when I see some in books (unless they write it wrong of course!)

      • March 21, 2010 1:19 pm

        I get that way when a book contains untranslated Spanish bits. :)

  6. March 19, 2010 4:16 pm

    It seems that a lot of folks found this disappointing and felt that it dragged quite a bit. Even The Historian, which I enjoyed, could very well have been a good bit shorter. That said, the focus on art history on this one does appeal to me.

    • March 24, 2010 8:57 am

      Nymeth – It might be worth checking out, then, as long as you don’t pick it up until you’re in the mood for a slower book.

  7. March 19, 2010 10:07 pm

    Oh, Kostova- I definitely agree with her great need for an editor. I’m glad you at least enjoyed The Swan Thieves. I swore her off after The Historian.

    • March 24, 2010 8:58 am

      Omni – The Swan Thieves was okay, but I’d have probably been happier spending those 10 days reading something(s) else. I liked The Historian, but I listened to that on audiobook, so for some reason the slowness didn’t bother me as much.

      • April 21, 2010 4:34 pm

        I have this on my wishlist – why, I do not really know as any reviews I did of The Historian always included the phrase “could do with some judicious pruning”. I think the premises are good but the execution definitely needs more fine-tuning – perhaps I should try an audio book version – I’ve never done audio before! ;-)

  8. DanaB permalink
    March 25, 2010 6:57 am

    Thanks for your review of this one! I’ve seen it mentioned here and there but have yet to add it to my bookstacks…I probably will give it a search at the library just to see it for myself…I’m of a curious sort ;)

    Love your blog header, btw!


  9. DanaB permalink
    March 25, 2010 6:59 am

    Hmm… my name isn’t clickable…I hate it when I can’t click and ‘find’ a person, so I’m adding my link ;)

  10. March 28, 2010 8:44 am

    I really enjoyed The Historian and have been thinking of picking up another one of her books. It looks like I’d enjoy The Swan Thieves…but I need to wait until I have enough energy to get through another huge book.

  11. May 8, 2010 1:39 pm

    I am reading this book now, and so far am loving it….even Robert’s back story :)

    I am not too far into the book as yet to get a little bored, but my experience with The Historian was similar to yours … too much repetition

    Thanks for all the info on the painting. I also got a bit puzzled when the description in the book didn’t match the cover

  12. ilene permalink
    May 22, 2010 10:18 pm

    just finished swan thieves. GOING CRAZY!. on last page, last paragrah they mention that bearice is dropping a pachage off at reynard’s. WHO IS REYNARD.

  13. Lcm permalink
    January 5, 2011 11:52 pm

    Actually Leda & the swan is Greek myth, and there are many pictures depicting it.

    • January 6, 2011 9:20 am

      Well, yes, I know that; I was referring to the specific painting Leda and the Swan that Robert goes after with the knife. It’s described in great detail, but it’s fictional.

  14. Kathryn permalink
    July 11, 2011 4:32 pm

    I loved The Historian and I loved this book. Read it in 2 days. The author/narrator of the book tells us in the first pages that all the names have been changed except one. Silly people if you are reading that slowly you should have caught that!

  15. July 1, 2012 2:57 pm

    Thanks, Fyrefly, I too thought is was a real painting. Found your blog while trying to google it. Much appreciated – even two years later :)

    • July 2, 2012 10:10 am

      SJ – I’m glad it’s not just me! And glad too if I could save you any googling frustration. :)

  16. September 29, 2013 7:46 pm

    I’ve been googling to see if characters were actually real impressionist artists….alas, all fictional, it seems. I’m commenting now because I am a painter myself, still trying to be a better one at age 81. I was deep into the book because it felt like my own history. I can’t imagine really how readers who are not artists, especially traditional oil painters like all the characters, could have gotten much out of the book. I have often felt like my passion to paint since my first water colors at age 7 was more a curse than a “gift”. Life thwarted me at every serious attempt I made, it seemed, but I still painted and made art in many ways, always, even though I earned a living mainly as a writer and journalist. I never felt making paintings to hang on walls made any practical sense, and had great difficulty justifying my obsession to do it. And yet, humans have regarded the ability to draw and paint well, especially to paint two dimensional forms so that they look “alive” as some kind of God-given ability, from the cave paintings depicting magical animals, to the religious art that told human history to illiterate masses all the way to the 21st century. And the notion that artistic genius is somehow inevitably linked to mental derangement continues to this day — with plenty of evidence as true.
    Kostova’s novel is right on in all of that.


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