Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

From The Malaysia Star --

Swan song? --

By: Terence Toh --
March 19, 2010 --

The Swan Thieves
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Publisher: Little, Brown, 565 pages

AN art gallery would probably be the last place anyone would anticipate a violent attack, and yet, at the New York National Gallery of Art, the unthinkable has happened: renowned painter Robert Oliver, a man known for his reclusive behaviour, has been arrested. His crime: attacking a painting, Leda, by Gilbert Thomas.

Called in to investigate is psychologist and part-time painter Dr Andrew Marlow, who rapidly becomes interested in the case, despite the reticent Oliver proving unhelpful. While highly talented, the artist exhibits bizarre, almost insane behaviour, most notably his obsession with painting a mysterious woman he has never seen in his life.

The only clue that Marlow finds is a stack of mysterious love letters given to him by Oliver, written in French by obscure painter Beatrice Cherval to her patron and lover in the late 17th century.

In the course of his investigation, Marlow encounters the two women in Oliver’s life: his sweet yet frazzled ex-wife, Kate, and his mistress, the hauntingly beautiful yet conflicted Mary Bertinson. He soon uncovers a complex tale of forbidden love, obsession and art that traverses continents and spans two centuries.

From my brief synopsis, I would not be surprised if readers dismiss The Swan Thieves as a Da Vinci Code knockoff. However, rest assured that The Swan Thieves is nothing like that. In fact, it moves in a completely opposite direction from Dan Brown novels, relying on slow-building tension and character elaboration rather than non-stop suspense to hook readers. Of course, whether it succeeds in doing this is up for debate.

The Swan Thieves is the second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, an award-winning American author most known for her debut work, The Historian, a gripping re-imagination of the Dracula legend that as of 2005, proved to be the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in American history. In The Swan Thieves, Kostova revisits the same plot elements that brought her debut novel such success: multiple points of view, frequent forays to the past and romantic melodrama.

The result, however, is disappointing. Despite showing a lot of promise in the beginning, Kostova’s novel ends up unfulfilling, unresolved and, ultimately, unsatisfying. It is a chore to read, being wordy and dragging.

At 500 parts, this is a whopper of a story. Much of the book is used to elaborate on the back stories of the characters, rather than focusing on the more intriguing mystery elements of the tale.

A lot of the novel feels unnecessary and, honestly, the story could have been told in three-quarters of the book.

The narrative alternates between modern-day and the 18th-century world of Beatrice Cherval, but this is handled rather awkwardly. While the story of Beatrice proves important to the plot, it is shoe-horned into the story at inappropriate parts and feels disconnected from the main narrative.

To make things worse, there are too many flashbacks where very little happens.

Kostova’s characters are also uninteresting. While her supporting cast are all right, they are all introduced too briefly (such as Marlow’s kind-hearted father) or too late in the story to make an impact (such as Pedro Caillat, an eccentric art collector).

Her main cast are humourless and all sound too alike to engage the reader. While Oliver, the character central to the mystery is quite well-written, we never get to hear things from his perspective.

The story does have some interesting things to say about the power of obsession and the power of art to inspire, preserve and destroy.

Overall, however, Kostova’s second novel proves to be a disappointment, with unlikeable characters, a tedious narrative and an unsatisfying ending.

It is recommended only for art lovers and insomniacs looking for the best way to fall asleep.

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