The Swan Thieves-Elizabeth Kostova

Opening: “Outside the village there is a fire ring, blackening the thawing snow. Next to the fire ring is a basket that has sat there for months and is beginning to weather to the color of ash.”

Back in 2009, I read The Historian, Kostova’s first novel. I found it generally interesting, a fast read despite its length, and genuinely eerie.

So I was interested to see what the The Swan Thieves would do. Unfortunately, I wound up feeling that it was a much weaker book.

Our narrator here is Andrew Marlow, an eminent psychologist, who takes on a difficult case–Robert Oliver, a well-known painter who attacked a painting in the National Gallery (the D.C. one, not the London one). As he struggles to understand what happened and why, he finds himself drawn into Oliver’s world.

Part of the problem with The Swan Thieves is simply how much it’s trying to do. It wants to be a mystery novel and a psychological portrait, and a picture of Impressionism, as well as make arguments about love and watching your parents grow old and so on. And yet there are also places that seem oddly repetitive–phrases that reappear and images that apparently are common to all of the narrators.

The other main problem is the fact that we have multiple narrators here–Marlow*, Mary, Kate. Then we have Beatrice de Clerval’s letters, and in other places, either Marlow’s imaginings of her life, or apparently a jump straight back to a 3rd person narrative of her life. Now, I’ve admitted many times that I’m often not a fan of multiple narratives, but my usual complaint (that they break up the story too much) is not the case here, because every single one of these narrators sounds like the same person. Kate’s narrative, in particular, bothered me, as it’s supposed to be her spoken account of her life with Robert Oliver, but it has no sense of spoken-ness. It reads like a written narrative. I do realize that Marlow is supposed to have compiled all of these pieces and therefore it could be that his voice is the predominant one. I don’t buy it, though. If multiple narrators are going to be used, they must have some distinguishing characteristics and here they simply don’t.

I don’t want to imply that this book is all bad. The central mystery was engaging enough to keep me reading, and Kostova has a deft hand with descriptions. I have relatives in Connecticut and I lived in Maine a bit when I was younger, so those sections were fun and it was nice to see them portrayed beautifully. It’s also true that I’m the wrong age to enter fully into Marlow’s middle-aged dilemmas. However, in the end I was left unsatisfied.

Book source: public library
Book information: Little, Brown and Company, 2010; adult

* If you’re thinking of Joseph Conrad here, well, you should. He’s apparently one of Kostova’s influences, and he admits that he’s changed all the names, including his own.



Filed under bookish posts, reviews

2 responses to “The Swan Thieves-Elizabeth Kostova

  1. Mimi

    I’m one of the few people I know who loved “The Historian” and I liked “Swan Thieves” as well, didn’t love it, but enjoyed the characters.

    • Maureen E

      I did really enjoy The Historian when I read it, and found it super creepy, which I don’t often. With The Swan Thieves, I think I was mostly annoyed by the way the different narratives didn’t hold up.

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