Elizabeth Kostova was reportedly the cause of one of the most monumental book rights auctions of recent times when she put her first novel, The Historian, up for grabs a few years ago. The subsequent book, a new telling of the Dracula legend, was undeniably a work of great research and passion but anyone who read my review of the resulting tome would know that I was left somewhat flat by the execution of what was supposedly a passionate storytelling for the author. A combination of plots told partly through letters and across generations, plus masses of research, to me left the book slow and clunky with a hasty conclusion that wasn't particularly satisfying to me as a reader.
But I must have seen something in the book - or indeed gave in to my own stubbornness! - because I duly finished The Historian and in my subsequent review I mentioned that I had on a whim decided to give Kostova a second chance when seeing a copy of her next offering, The Swan Thieves, which I added to my existing intended purchases in a charity shop "buy two get one free" offer. Having recently been gripped by my book obsession, I have been working through the mountain of novels I had given myself to read, and after being led into the "genre" of historical dramas such as Labyrinth, Sepulchre and The Historian, I looked forward to trying another one while my interest was still strong.
The Swan Thieves is another book told from two different ages and the key link between their unfolding is again in the form of letters left from the past and found my modern characters. Initially they illustrate the polite conversation between a young French woman and her uncle by marriage, discussing their respective love for art and their painting work as her portfolio develops and gains attention.
In the modern world, however, another artist is sent to a psychiatric institution, to be kept under the care of Andrew Marlowe. Robert Oliver, himself a renowned painter, inexplicably attacked the painting Leda & The Swan in a museum, almost taking a knife to it before a guard stopped him. Initially Marlowe got some communication from the artist but soon after his arrival at the institution he stops talking completely and looks determined to remain thus. This is made even more frustrating by the way that he continually paints the same young woman in portraits, apparently from a remarkably vivid memory. Marlowe becomes more and more intrigued by the case and in his desperation to find both the trigger to Oliver's apparent psychosis and the answer to unlocking his voice. This leads him to start looking back through his patient's history and gradually the leads of a story start to reveal themselves, and the connection with Robert's obsession with the subject of his paintings and a period of history in French art becomes apparent.
After The Historian, I was apprehensive about The Snow Thieves. The reviews, in comparison to those of The Historian, weren't great - Kostova is accused of crafting characters in this book that don't really develop and I have to say that I can agree with that statement; in fact there is only one character that shows any true progression through their lives at all. They are basically all painters and one critic observed that they were all very similar to one another.
However, it seems from Amazon reviews that people who liked The Historian didn't like this or vice versa. I very much fall into the latter category and became completely engrossed in this book - that said it isn't without fault.
As I mentioned above, to me only one character showed any real development and that was the French artist Beatrice de Clerval, who we initially meet through her letters. Her story is well crafted and intriguing, whereas Robert Oliver, in real terms is in the story very little (he paints and he doesn't talk much, so there's not much point really!) but accounts from his former wife and lover that Marlowe extracts do not paint a character that you root for and wish to recover. Instead he is a thoroughly unlikeable and cold character. His obsession with the girl in his paintings may not have the strongest of bases but then that's obsession - its not meant to be rational, is it? Furthermore, whilst Marlowe seems likeable enough, I don't find either of the women he tracks down from Robert's life to be particularly likeable, even his wronged wife. They are not actively easy to dislike they just lack a warmth that Kostova's characters from The Historian were also missing in my opinion. So, when Marlowe reaches the conclusion of his mystery, it is not particularly for he, for Robert or for either of the women he had loved that you are rooting for closure, but for the young Beatrice du Clerval and for yourself as a reader as you follow this historical story arc alongside the modern day one. When The Swan Thieves reaches its conclusion, it is that story that resonated with me and made me enjoy the book so much, whereas the others are effective plot devices but with little by way of depth of personality.
That said, to extend the story to make her modern characters more likeable when there isn't necessarily the need, in my opinion would have made this book too long. It is certainly already hefty, but I do feel that Kostova's tone has improved and I found this considerably more readable than her previous book, which was so packed full of facts, research and "important information" that it just became tedious and repetitive.
So in conclusion I am glad that I read this and will definitely be keeping my copy and probably reading it again one day in the dim and distant future. It may not boast the strongest characterisation in the world but Kostova has redeemed herself in my opinions of her and I now would certainly consider reading more work from her.
Available new in paperback for £6.99 via Amazon or various second hand offers. Kindle available.
Published by Sphere in 2010
Elizabeth Kostova is one of those rare female authors whose work is timeless, ageless and sexless. With the Swan Thieves she proves her versatility once again, showing that her first book, the acclaimed novel The Historian, was no fluke.
I'll not use the word 'plot' here, as this is a complicated book with many strands spanning the present day, the recent past and the 19th century, in particular the years around the age of the Impressionist painters.
It opens with Dr Andrew Marlow, a respected psychiatrist and bachelor, whose ordered life, is interrupted when he takes on the care of a distressed man, the eminent painter and teacher, Robert Oliver. Robert is apprehended trying to stab a painting of a swan in the National gallery. He is also obsessed with painting one image, that of a beautiful dark-haired woman who is almost always depicted as a woman of the past, though he claims in just one sentence that she is real and alive. Thereafter he refuses to speak and is not able to be released into society again.
Dr Marlow accepts him as an inpatient in the Goldengrove institute he has practiced in for twelve years, but he will need the help of many people before he can help Robert. These include Robert's ex-wife Kate, who narrates her side of the story. Then he seeks out Mary, Robert's ex-lover who also narrates her tale, a haunting story of which Marlow has to unravel and find out who the woman in Robert's paintings are before he can get anywhere at all.
Robert allows Marlow a look at the bundle of letters, which date from the 19th century and are between another painter, the elderly Olivier Vignot and his niece by marriage, Beatrice who also paints. Since Marlow paints as a hobby himself, he is able to follow the correspondence and the frequent references to the Impressionists of that time. This is no plot-spoiler; the narrative weaves between Marlow, Kate, Mary and the voice of the letters, Beatrice herself. What follows is a tale as haunting as it's subject and the ending is unanticipated.
Notes on style and content.
There is something very measured and paced about this author's writing. It recalls the style of earlier writers, in particular the early 20th century so one comes to think of her as part writer part historian.
The quality of her writing is in it's restraint, the careful structure balancing darkness and light, suggesting the very atmosphere of the times she captures with words, instead of brush on canvass.
This was evident in her debut novel, The Historian so the suggestion of artistry in words is possibly not intentional but an inbuilt talent that cannot be rushed or categorized hastily. Where there is hesitation in the narrative the topic requires delicacy of touch and, at times, her words are like musical notes, plucked from a harp-string, resonating into space and time.
One would expect her then to shy away from earthiness, but she writes of passion with a sense of maleness that one wouldn't associate with a woman; such is the power of the erotic vanity of her male characters.
In choosing to write of the impressionists she approaches with wit and intelligence showing a true understanding of her subject matter. I imagine this novel was heavily researched dealing with the topics of obsession in both love and art. Although I know little of psychology I see her as having a good understanding of this as well. I could even go as far as to think the subject of her book is not just a love story resonating through the ages, but one of underlining the very real aspects of tenderness and desperation, so close together.
Her love scenes echo the age she writes about, therefore the contrast of modern-day permissiveness to the gentility of latter-day courtship couldn't be more of a contrast. Even so, the passion that runs throughout the book seems like a constant yearning ready to spring into full-blooded rapture.
My point is that some may feel the book overlong, while I see it as a build-up to something splendid and heart-felt, leaving me as speechless as the victim of his own passion, the hapless Robert, and, to some extent, Andrew Marlow as well.
I won't go into any length on this as its one of those character-driven stories again. I did love the idea of several love stories happening in the past and present and the way the characters respond to their mutual love of art. There is also something of the role of women in art and female liberation as well. Perhaps a touch of the depth Tracey Chevalier brings to her characters.
I did find myself in sympathy with Robert's women as he drives them to despair with his obsession. I also loved the character of Andrew Marlow as the patient yet driven and caring doctor. I am afraid of giving too much away with the roles his female characters play, so I'll just add that Kostova's females are no 'shrinking violets.'
While the book is a long one at 600 pages in paperback, I hope I've given some reasons for its length. It could have been told quicker, but what a loss that would have been. I loved the spanning of the eras, the love stories unraveling between old and young love, a type of 'May to December' magic.
I loved the theme of love and painting, given that I dabble a bit myself and studied the impressionists as part of my A-Level art. (Though that was a long time ago, some things don't change.)
So highly recommended for anyone who loves a good story told with artistry and love.
My copy is a 2nd hand find. You can buy this for £2.29 new on Amazon. The Kindle edition is priced at £4.49.
This is a most unusual story which is centred around a few characters,depending on who is narrating at the time and flits between present day and 19th century France.I have to say that although the book is good I did not enjoy it as much as The Historian. Possibly because there was more suspense and mystery in The Historian than in this book.
If the author has one fault it is that her writing can be a bit too lengthy at times with a tendency to kind of ramble. However, her research seems impeccable. If you enjoy painting or going to art galleries you will enjoy this book as it mainly tells a story of painters both present day and 19th century concentrating particularly on renowned artist Robert Oliver (present day ) and the 19th century artist Beatrice De Clerval ( a painter who for some reason ceased to paint at an early age). If you enjoy the Impressionist painters in particular you will like the story. The ending of the book is not what I expected but does give an explanation as to why the characters do what they do. If you can wade through 105 chapters ( a bit lengthy) it is a good read.
I have to say though that I thoroughly recommend The Historian if you have never read it.
What would drive a successful artist to attack a painting with a knife ? This is the question facing psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe when the artist in question is referred to him as a patient - a question that is not easily answered, given the patients silent unresponsiveness. Marlowe embarks on a mission to learn about this silent genius, through the eyes of the various women that held is heart. But will what he discovers enable him to help his patient, or he Marlowe only intent on helping himself.
I read Elizabeth Kostovas debut novel the Historian some time ago, and very much enjoyed it, despite it being a long and rather wordy read. However, while the Historian dealt with Vampires, Myths, and ancient legends, the plot of 'The Swan Thieves' is largely anchored in the present time, making it a different story all together .
The story tells the story through the eyes of various people - Marlowe, Roberts ex-wife Kate, his former lover, Mary, and a series of letters exchanged many years ago by a French artist, Beatrice de Clerval, and her older love (also her husbands uncle) Olivier.
It's fair to say there isn't a lot of action in this book - it's really centred on the way the characters unfold, their relationships with each other, whether real or imagined, and on what makes them behave the way they do . There is an element of mystery to the book - who is the dark haired beauty Robert continually paints, over and over, for example. However, the mystery is perhaps a little too thinly veiled - I did find that I had figured out the actual ending of the story, his motivation behind his attack on the painting, rather early on in the book .
This didn't stop me reading though - I was interested in how he got to that action, and on the way there was a fair amount of romance, and a lot of travel to various locations, all wonderfully described in the book . The book, being centred on art, is necessarily quite heavy on description, with lots of mention of colours and the way they react in certain lights, the way shadows fall opn fresh snow, and also descriptions of sounds. This description, which I do feel is partially necessary given the books heavy art focus, can occasionally become a little over the top and feel like mere padding.
I did find myself quite often stopping to look up various paintings on the internet. Although the works by Beatrice de Clerval mentioned in the book are fictional, as is the work attacked by Robert at the start of the book, plenty of others do actually exist. It also made me interested to look up the story of Leda, an old legend often referred to in the book .
Overall, despite it's slightly slow pace and it's tendency to sometimes use 10 words where 2 would do, I really enjoyed this book. I did warm to several of the characters, and although I did manage fairly early on to predict several aspects of the plot, there were still sufficient unknowns to keep me reading . At 624 pages, this book is quite substantial, and kept me occupied for two or three nights .
If you have the patience to read through the endless artistic description, this is an enjoyable book with an interesting tale to tell, and certainly a book I would recommend giving a chance.
4 stars .
Elizabeth Kostova's book The Swan Thieves is well worth reading. It centres around a deranged artist in a mental institution. Psychologist Andrew Marlow, himself an artist, agrees to try and understand Robert and his reasons for his selective mutism. As the story unravels jumping from past to present in the form of letters and events happening in 19th century France it becomes clear that maybe Robert is not as disturbed as first thought, after all he does have everyone running around after him. Marlow does a good job at unearthing the reasons for Robert's state of mind and his obsession with a dead artist from long ago. To make him human and not a hero Marlow uses some unethical approaches in his work, firstly stealing the letters which are the centre of the case and secondly by falling in love and having an affair with Robert's ex girlfriend.
The novel does come to an abrupt end and Robert is discharged as soon as Marlow realises the reason behind the breakdown. Because someone else now knows the mystery Robert is cured and left to carry out his life as he pleases, presumably completely sane.