Thursday, March 4, 2010

Review of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

From The Edmonton Journal --

Mystery novel inspires love-hate response --

By: Robert J. Wiersema --
February 14, 2010 --

Story reels from beautiful to painfully boring;

Elizabeth Kostova made a big splash with her debut novel, The Historian.

The Swan Thieves
Elizabeth Kostova Little, Brown 564 pp; $32.99

Here's a conundrum: How can one write about a book when they're unsure whether to highly recommend it, or suggest it is best avoided?

Is it possible to love a book and not really like it, simultaneously?

Apparently so: that's the quandary I'm facing with The Swan Thieves, the new novel from Elizabeth Kostova.

Kostova entered the publishing world with a splash with her bestselling 2005 debut novel The Historian, which interwove a re-envisioning of the gory life and legend of Vlad Tepes (Bram Stoker's model for Dracula) with a 20th-century investigation into the Vlad myth, using first-person narration, letters and other texts, and historical scenes.

Kostova uses a similar, though simplified approach with The Swan Thieves.

In 1999, Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist and amateur painter based in Washington, D.C., takes on the case of an artist, Robert Oliver, who has been arrested for attacking a painting in the National Gallery of Art. After a brief conversation following his hospitalization, Oliver falls silent, and spends his days repeatedly sketching and painting an enigmatic woman. Unable to communicate with his patient, Marlow attempts to understand his obsession with the mysterious woman. His investigation takes him into conversations with Oliver's ex-wife and his former lover, and, as pieces begin to fall into place, he begins to research the history of the painting which Oliver attacked, and the life of a little-known Impressionist, Beatrice de Clerval.

Threaded through the narrative of Marlow's investigation are Beatrice's letters, which Marlow steals from Oliver to have translated, and third-person scenes from Beatrice's life.

The premise and the approach of the novel are certainly promising, with their overtones of obsession and passion, and the compelling mystery at the core of the book. Whether it actually works, though, whether The Swan Thieves fulfils that promise, is an unresolved question.

There were times that I found the novel utterly engrossing, when I read compulsively and at every available opportunity, and there were times that I was bored almost to the point of frustration. There were times when I found the characterizations rich and complex, and times when Marlow, in particular, had about as much depth as the paper he was printed on. There were times when the 19th-century scenes seemed utterly pointless and an unwelcome departure from the contemporary storyline, and other times when Beatrice's story formed the more compelling line of the novel. There were times when I found the novel beautiful, gracefully written almost to the point of being breathtaking, and other times when I found the language of the novel so overwrought as to be almost painful. And the resolution of the novel is, on the one hand, completely satisfying while at the same time disappointing.

I guess what it boils down to is this: I found The Swan Thieves to be an engrossing if not altogether satisfying reading experience. I would recommend it, guardedly, with all of the above caveats.

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