Newest Review: ... ages and the key link between their unfolding is again in the form of letters left from the past and found my modern characters. I... more
Far More Enjoyable Than The Historian
The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova
Member Name: missrarr
The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova
Date: 07/07/13, updated on 07/07/13 (60 review reads)
Advantages: Improvement on the first novel by the author
Disadvantages: Characters are mostly hard to warm to
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
Summary: Not perfect but considerably more enjoyable than The Historian