Monday, February 8, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, a Review

From Telegraph (UK) --

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova: review --

By Judith Flanders --
25 Jan 2010 --

The Swan Thieves will leave its readers laughing, but for all the wrong reasons, says Judith Flanders.

Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, was a smash hit, a vampire-romp that capered across Europe dragging its breathlessly giggling readers in its wake. The Swan Thieves, her follow-up, will also leave its readers laughing, but for all the wrong reasons.

Robert Oliver is a painter on the cusp of fame. He has it all: a beautiful and devoted wife, two lovely children, a job that leaves him time to paint. But one day he is found in the National Gallery in Washington, attempting to damage a painting of Leda and the Swan. Refusing to explain, he is sectioned, and put under the care of psychiatrist and part-time painter Andrew Marlowe.

A bundle of 19th-century letters in French is found in his possession, which Kostova drip-feeds to us before, rather bumpily, beginning their back-story: that of a French Impressionist painter who is caught between her husband and another love and the ultimate secret of her work.

As in The Historian, the reader is ferried about the world by the narrator to meet each new character — what was a charming device in The Historian now appears to be Kostova’s single method of plotting. The people in Oliver’s life each tell their share of the story to Marlowe in his attempt to solve the mystery of the artist’s breakdown.

This constant return to the beginning palls. Worse, all the characters share a level of pretentiousness that makes the reader want to slap them silly: the shrink can’t just peel an orange, no, he has to “feel a pang of contentment” as he solemnly admires the orangeness of his orange; his dream-girl in turn confides smugly, “In the end, I always act from the heart, even if I also value reason and tradition.” (As he ends up marrying her, one feels grateful not to have to share a breakfast table with either of them.)

The denouement is signalled a quarter of the way through, but, despite the characters constantly telling each other how clever they are, they have hundreds of pages to plod through before they reach the same conclusion, which makes them seem curiously thick.

And, as a final flourish, when the so-called mystery is unravelled, this obvious explanation is sufficient to ''cure’’ in an hour a man who has been disturbed enough to suffer elective mutism for a year: an insult to the mentally ill everywhere.

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