The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Four narrators, two centuries, and no pace make this novel about love affairs between painters one to avoid.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 576 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Sphere
ISBN: 978-1847442406

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1999 – A renowned painter, Robert Oliver, goes mad, attacking a painting with a knife. He's arrested, and sent to a psychiatrist who is also an artist. The psychiatrist, Andrew Marlowe, can't get his patient to talk to him, but tries to investigate what drove him to this by talking to his wife and his girlfriend, and reading some letters Oliver seems obsessed with.

1879 – Beatrice de Clerval, aspiring artist, corresponds with her uncle-by-marriage Olivier Vignot, a more experienced painter. Their letters will be found by Robert Oliver, 120 years later, and will lead to his loss of sanity.

In this way, Elizabeth Kostrova interweaves several love stories, involving the six characters mentioned above. Like The Historian, her first novel, the book can't be faulted for ambition. Unfortunately, there are far more areas where it can be faulted. It appears to be trying to include many different aspects of love, from young love, to last love, to lost love, to obsession, but none of these aspects ring particularly true.

I really enjoyed the first 100 pages or so, which seemed to be setting the scene for the rest of the novel – however, I eventually realized that practically the entire book is 'setting the scene'. Virtually nothing of interest happens for most of the modern day story, while the 1879 storyline, while it gradually becomes more prominent, is given far too little space in comparison. In The Historian, Kostrova told a lengthy tale which held my attention throughout, but despite being of a similar length, this second novel had me struggling to continue for much of it.

Part of the problem is that it's split between several narrators in the present day – Marlow, Oliver's wife Kate and his girlfriend Mary – and none of them are particularly interesting characters. Indeed, their voices fail to stand out to the extent that on picking a random page and reading a few sentences, it's often nearly impossible to tell which of the narrators it is. Robert Oliver himself is a much more intriguing proposition, but while Kostrova successfully manages to convey that none of her three narrators have gotten close to understanding him, this fact makes it difficult to care too much about him, or any of them. Marlow, in particular, is a bizarre and fairly unrealistic character, who almost certainly risks his career for Oliver, and is seemingly able to set off around the country almost at will.

The ending, which finally ties together the 19th century and 20th century plotlines, seems rushed compared to the huge amount of words taken to get to it, and while I'm perhaps underestimating how important certain things are to artists, it came as a complete anti-climax to me.

In fairness to Kostrova, while I've made it clear that the story itself didn't come close to impressing me, her writing style is still good, and readers who like an extremely leisurely-paced novel may well find this book far more enjoyable than I did. For me, though, I'll go back to rereading The Historian, and keep my fingers crossed that book number three is a return to form.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

There are far better literary love stories out there, such as the classic Wuthering Heights. You might appreciate The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

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Buy The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova at


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