Elizabeth Kostova – The Swan Thieves
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.
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.
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.