The Swan Thieves – A Book Review

The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves

What I feared would happen has happened. I have finished The Swan Thieves, which I had expressly picked up for the flight, even before the trip has started.

There were a lot of reviews on the web mentioning that this book is slow, so I didn’t really expect to finish it within 3 days – especially considering I have so much travel preparations to get through.

But that is what I exactly managed to do! Now, I am stranded with nothing to read, and will have to make a last-minute dash to the bookstore/library and pick up something to read.

I can’t say that I feel too bad about it because I enjoyed this book thoroughly – slow and all.

The story:
Robert Oliver is an extremely talented artist. When he attacks the painting ‘Leda’ in the National Gallery, no one can understand why. Oliver ends up in a psychiatric hospital and Dr. Andrew Marlowe who paints as a hobby is assigned to treat him in the hope that he will understand the artist’s mindset. Oliver refuses to speak, but continues drawing and painting the same woman over and over again. He also has in his possession a packet of letters from the late 1800’s that may hold the key to the mystery woman. Marlowe himself becomes obsessed, seeking out the women in Robert’s past in an attempt to help Robert.

The rest of the story deals with how he solves the mystery behind Robert’s illness and how he finds love in the process.

My Review:

I am always a little biased towards books that have present-day protagonists investigate mysteries of the past. Which means that I am going to be a wee little bit more effusive about this book than some other reviewers. But, this book is still not so good that I can ignore some of it’s rather weird plot points.

Yeah, it’s slow, and yeah, the male lead is as dull as ditchwater…but the writing, oh my gosh…the writing is simply superb. The descriptions of the art, and the Impressionist movement was extremely illuminating without being dull or preachy.

Kostova seems to have made a deliberate writing choice in describing the artist Robert Oliver through the eyes of his ex-wife, lover, and psychiatrist without having him utter more than a half-dozen words throughout the book. I like this approach as it gives him some mystery and savoir-faire thereby making up for Andrew Marlowe’s dullness. I also loved the love story between Robert Oliver and his wife, and really felt for them when it all started going wrong.

Now for the weird plot points…what do you think about a plot where an 18th century married woman has an affair with her father-in-law’s elder brother? And where the husband seems to be implicitly encouraging them to go ahead? I found this so weird in a very ugghh way. In fact, in the modern love story too, there is a significant age gap between the lovers. There is also a love story between a 50 something old woman, and a young bisexual man.

I guess Kostova is trying to make some point that love can come at all ages, and in all variations. However, she makes her point with a very heavy hammer, instead of being a little more subtle about it. Not too much would have been lost in terms of plot if Kostova had chosen to make her leading men a little bit younger.

In comparison with her first book The Historian, this one is a more mature and sedate book. I actually prefer it to The Historian, which was nice, but overlong, repetitive, and with a tame ending.

This book’s ending is also weak, but still much better than The Historian. What do you think? Have you read both her books? Which one do you prefer and why?

Note: Because parts of this book are set in France, I am going to include this book in my participation in the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge.

  • Kathy

    I really do not understand the ending. Who was painting the picture in the first and last chapter. Also, Beatrice was described as having something in her arms in the first chapter and then in the last chapter she had empty arms. Someone please explain this to me?

  • Diane Wiley

    I’m so happy to have found your review and the comments from other people. I just finished reading The Swan Thieves and really enjoyed it. Kostova is such a beautiful and creative writer, but I don’t think the pace is for everyone. For me, however, her writing is so wonderful, I love reading her beautiful descriptions of places and people. It’s interesting that you found Marlow to be “dull”. Being 60 myself, I found him to be very real. A good man who was lost in his job and had let his social relationships go. Not uncommon. But dull? I don’t know, he seemed very deep to me – he’s a thinking, caring human being in a job that takes a lot out of a person. The contrast between his “obsession” with his work and Robert’s “obsession” and where it took them both was brilliant, I thought. I also don’t understand why you thought the ending was weak. Kostova foreshadowed so many things and then in the end, they all became clear. I thought it was masterful. Beatrice’s response to her situation and how it unfolded was so real. She was a strong woman in a time where women didn’t have many options, but she made the best of hers. Delightful read. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

    • @Diane: Thanks for the very insightful comments. I like the point you make comparing his obsessions with Robert’s. I didn’t pick up on that at all.

      And I agree with you…Kostova’s writing is beautiful!

  • boatacrosstheriver

    Loved the book, though I agree that the ending was anti-climactic!

    • @boatacrosstheriver: Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. Yes, the ending was quite anti-climactic

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  • After I read that you got the book, I jumped on mine which had been lying for months… well you beat me..though I finished I didn’t get time to write the review yet 🙂 anyways, I never read Historian…this one I liked but not loved..I am not that surprised about the love or intimacy between older men and younger happens in modern day too and sexual attraction is different for everybody regardless of age..I guess..

  • dull as a ditchwater !! haa haa lol!..historian and this book has been high on my must read list ..

  • This is too weird! I just posted my review 10 minutes ago.

    It’s funny you pick out the relationship as odd. I didn’t notice at all, but I (TMI) have always preferred dating much older men.

    Also, Robert was only in his early 40s, and I don’t think Marlow’s character would have worked much younger than he is. The only thing he had going for him was the nature of his solitude, which pushed him past the point of no return in his adventure.

    Also, I did not think at all that Yves was pushing Beatrice into a love affair with his uncle. I think he naturally thought that the two were friendly, that his uncle was paternally nurturing of her, and that he was doing what was best for his wife in his absence. I never got the impression that he had a clue what was going on (he seemed pretty clueless overall) or that he was encouraging it. I think he genuinely loved his wife but in the way husbands loved wives in those days.

    I agree, though, with your point about Robert’s dozen words and had not even really picked up on that. He’s so well developed through the eyes of his ex-wife and lover he doesn’t need to speak.

    What an interesting book.

  • I guess I’m not surprised to hear that this one is a slow boil, since I felt like The Historian was overly long and took forever to reach its anticlimactic end. Ever since that I’ve been iffy about Kostova… all the weird things you mention about this one make me think I’m not ready to pick her up again.

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