I have a really contentious relationship with Elizabeth Kostova’s books. I read The Historian at the start of my winter semester in fourth year, and anyone who recognizes what that timing means knows that picking up a 600 page book at that time of year is a really stupid idea, but I had wanted to read it (I judged a book by it’s cover, I’ll admit), and I got it as a Christmas gift. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Two weeks later, I was ready to put that book through my shrink-wrapped window; I went on an uncharacteristic rant to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) about how ridiculous the ending had been, during which I willfully spoiled the plot to keep others from reading it. I promise not to do that here (again), but know that I desperately want to.
About a year after that, Kostova’s second book, The Swan Thieves came out. I was torn. I hated the way Kostova ended The Historian, but up until the last 20 pages or so, found it an enjoyable and dynamic read. Was it worth taking a risk and buying her second work? I decided that it was, so picked up The Swan Thieves, and promptly left it to gather dust on my shelf for over a year. Inspired by having read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, another book that hung around for a while on my shelves, I decided now was the time to read The Swan Thieves to see what, if any trouble, I would be getting myself into.
This book left me with several impressions that I wanted to share. The first is that Kostova is a master of writing a slow-burning story. As in The Historian, the plot is always moving forward, but often times only by inches. Because Kostova is such an engaging writing, however, you only notice that delay in progress at the end of natural passages in the book. And, once again, it is only until the last 20 pages that the plot is fully revealed.
Kostova’s characters are engaging, but run of the mill. There is no one that stands out and made me go “Please, write another book about this one.” Marlow, the main character, is charming and likeable, but we don’t learn enough about him to make you want to spend more time with him. Robert Oliver, the main protagonist, is always at the periphery of the tale. This is an interesting dynamic; the whole book is about Marlow trying to piece together Oliver’s decent into madness – he talks about Oliver to all the secondary characters, most of his internal thoughts that he shares with the reader is about Oliver, and he spends a great deal of time with Oliver. But, in reality, Robert Oliver only says four or five sentences to Marlow throughout the entire the work. And yet, seeing as how the entire plot revolves around him, it’s an incredibly odd dynamic. However, Kostova handles it well.
It seems to me that most things happen in threes (one and two), and The Swan Thieves contributed to that pattern. I should have known going into it that this would be a book about art (especially given that the impetus for the plot is Robert’s attempt to slash a paining in
’s National Gallery), but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much art is represented in this work. Kostova holds a MFA, and it is clear that she is good at what she does – there are multiple descriptions of famous and not-so-famous paintings in this work, as well as the creative process. It’s an interesting look at the professional world of art, and it was written with an insider’s perspective. Washington
Final verdict? Menh. Read it if you have the time, or if you like Kostova’s work, but it’s not a barn-burner. I don’t think I’ll be picking up anymore of the author’s works – I don’t find them engaging enough to justify the time it takes to get through them. The Swan Thieves was nowhere near as offensive to my sensibilities as The Historian was (and, for the love of God, don’t waste your time with that one), but it wasn’t good enough to justify a re-read or a stellar recommendation. This work fell flat for me, so I find I can’t recommend you read it, but as it wasn’t horrible, I won’t recommend you don’t.