Friday, January 8, 2010

Book Review - Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Published by: Little, Brown and Company
ARC Provided by Litte, Brown and Company
Publication Date: January 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 576 Pages
Rating: ★
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The official patter:
"Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.

Kostova's masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from the late 19th century to the late 20th, from young love to last love. THE SWAN THIEVES is a story of obsession, history's losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope."

When the psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe admits the famous painter Robert Oliver to his care at Goldengrove, he doesn't expect that one patient to change everything about his own life, even his ethics and morals. Robert was arrested while trying to attack a painting by Gilbert Thomas based on the myth of Leda in the National Portrait Gallery. Unable to break Robert's imposed vow of silence, he must try to find the impetus for Robert's breakdown and why he felt he had to destroy that painting by conversing with those willing to talk, primarily Robert's ex-wife, Kate, and the mysterious Mary. But more importantly, Marlowe needs to find out the identity of the striking woman Robert draws over and over she the woman who wrote the letters that Robert covets and rereads ad infinitum? Is the woman his wife or perhaps Mary? The deeper in he gets the more Marlowe wonders if he is really doing this for his patient or for himself and he begins to unravel a mystery that has haunted many lives for over a century. The narrative temporally flows between Marlow's search, Robert's past and 19th century Paris. All leading to one revelation...the secret that haunts Robert Olliver.

I have long been hoping for a new Elizabeth Kostova book. I adored The Historian and could not wait to see what story she set pen to next. After reading The Swan Thieves my desire for a new book was sated...but not in a good way. I must honestly say that I am surprised I made it through this book, twenty pages in I really thought it was bad but was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. With one hundred pages left I almost gave up because I really hated the book. I finished... there was no great revelation, no fixing of all that I hated, but I was one with my dislike. I had simmered from total hatred to strong dislike. But truly I cannot in good conscious recommend this book to anyone, unless you like badly written prose with stupidly florid dialogue, simplistic plotting disguised and drawn out as a mystery with unlikable and unrealistic characters. There is so much wrong with it, but let me just illuminate a few of the key problems I had so that I don't sound like some bitter harpy just venting against a book that obviously took a long time to write.

The characters. The main character, Robert Olliver, seems rather intriguing, but we never actually hear him speak for himself, we only hear about him through those he surrounded himself with. So he's the focal point but almost a non character because he is never a narrator, and these narrators... oh, they got on my nerves. Andrew Marlowe is a self centered self impressed psychiatrist with delusions of being an artist himself. He thinks he's so wonderful that the young women around him must feel his longing gazes and return them in kind. He has dubious skills as a psychiatrist, how could someone be a doctor, an "educated man," and not figure out what was going on in the first five minutes. Plus he breaks all manners of ethical codes in the end. I personally like to call this the Robert Langdon effect. Know it all older men who really couldn't find a door right in front of their noses who all the women want and all the men want to be. Then there's Kate, Robert's ex, who is so weak and is just there for exposition of Robert's past and for Marlowe to fantasize about. Mary though is the worst of the modern narrators. I kept going reading the book because I noticed Marlowe narrated less so the book might get better. Wrong! Mary is a nubile young student who lusts after her own teacher. But really how can she spare time for others when she loves herself so much... Eventually she ensnares Robert just as she later ensnares Marlowe who seems to have no ethical qualms about getting involved in his patients recent ex. The two people in fin-de-siecle France are just as bad, with the young Beatrice lusting after her husband's uncle who is a far older man.

You might have caught one of my problems. All the women are lusting after older men. Some men are twenty years their senior, some more. What is with that? It's like some male fantasy that all young women want them and their "experience." I understand if it's driven by plot or character development, but here it just seemed a given that in this world the author has created all young women want older men. I would say that the author was a middle aged man if I didn't know better.

Onto other character flaws. The artists. I have been around artists my entire life. My parents ran a publishing company which published books as well as fine art prints. My mother was an artist. I am an artist. I went to school for a Bachelor's Degree in art. I am currently back in school getting a degree in Graphic Design. There is one thing I can say with 100% certainty. ARTISTS DON'T BEHAVE LIKE THIS! Yes they can be self impressed, self centered and messed up. But all different in their own quirky way. I think Kostova captured what an artist embodies most with Robert in the miasma of his presence...but all the other artists. I'm sorry but they don't spend every second of every day thinking about how they would capture the light, what brush they would use, what exact tube of paint...on and on about this minutiae that, yes, artists do think about, but not only that. The bizarre hyper real artists that she has created live in a little art bubble where there's only art. That's not how life works. If she was trying to show that little has changed over time, how things repeat themselves and how art has basically not changed, she has failed and also annoyed me in the process. Some people have said that this book inspired them to paint and go out and be an artist. If they think that this is what it's like being an artist they are deluded.

But all that is secondary to the predictable plot and the bad writing. This book was in desperate need of culling. A couple hundred pages could have been trimmed. All the time wasted setting up reflections and echos of the past in the present just seemed bogged down with all the unnecessary ephemera thrown in. I was able to figure out "the twist" fairly quickly. There was no big surprise. I think this also has to do with how conventions have changed over time. When you read Bleak House by Charles Dickens, or even Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon the Victorian morals make the secrets not that big a deal to us living in the 21st Century. There was so many ways she could have pushed it or tied it together. I kept thinking about how Robert's obsession with the painting could be pushed in a Hitchcockian direction a la Vertigo and Madeline's obsession with the painting at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. But no... just more young women and old men. There was one line that was so bad I laughed out loud because a trashy romance novel would not have even published it. (I would quote it here but reviewers are requested to not quote from the reader can hope it will be out by then, but I doubt it). But overall what got to me was her sentence structure is often fragmented and contradictory. Like she's stringing together adjectives, often with words that are polar opposites. Oh, and on a final note...continuity errors! If someone is born in 1947 they couldn't be a small child going to the Rockefeller Christmas show that same year! This isn't The Time Traveller's Wife!

This book was a major disappointment and I really wonder how it will do. Maybe the people who liked The Da Vinci Code can pick this up. Simplistic mystery, not well written, with an aging hero who thinks he's hot shit... yeah, it might yet be a best seller, but those who loved The Historian are warned to stay away.


on no, I was so looking forward to this book too. Oh well...Thanks for the review, there are plenty other books I can read instead :)

I so wanted to like it too!

That was a great, honest and informative review, this book is being so hyped at the moment it is nice to read a review that is both informative and honest. Will I read it? Possibly but I think perhaps it is one I would get from the library, thanks for the heads up.

I figured me saying it was shit, when it was such a hyped and anticipated book needed through backing up so the pitchforks wouldn't be sharpened. I think I'll go re-read The Historian... it was so good.

Interesting. Everyone I've read has been so excited about this book. They actually made me want to read it, never having read The Historian. Now I'll have to search the book blogs search engine to see what everyone is really saying.

Well, seeing as the easiest reviewers are Entertainment Weekly and they gave it a "C" which I rarely see, I'm thinking the reviews won't be kind. They also mentioned the soup obsession! I squealed in delight that that bothered them too!

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