Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.
First, the author gives a lot of detail. A lot. Excruciatingly, extraneously so. Need directions from Washington, D.C. to Greenville, North Carolina? This book can get you there! In many novels, lots of detail can be good, if it's used in the right way, but here it was distracting—Kostova gives us the background stories of even the most minor characters! Even for the major characters, details of their backgrounds are casually thrown in, sometimes simply because it is convenient to the story. For example, Andrew Marlowe goes down to North Carolina to visit Kate, and he says that the reason he knows the Virginia area so well is that he was at UVA. Then he never really follows up on that. Many of the characters and their motives simply aren’t believable: in one scene, she has Kate walk into Lord & Taylor in New York City for a Christmas gift for her mother, only to tell her reader in the next breath that a) Kate can’t afford the merchandise and b) her mother hates Lord & Taylor! So why go in there in the first place? Oh, yes, because that’s where she happens to meet Robert—another advance-the-plot mechanism that just didn’t work for me.
Another problem I had was with the lack of tonality. All of the characters’ narrations sound exactly the same. In fact, had I not known from the get-go that Marlow was a man, I could have sworn that his character was female!
There are also some consistency issues and repetition: Andrew Marlowe tells us early on that he never does research on the internet, and then twenty pages on he says something to the effect of, “I should probably tell you now that I don’t like doing research on the internet.” But wait, didn’t he tell us that before? And all of the examples I’ve cited above are only from the first hundred pages or so; there are probably more examples of how ineptly this novel is written and presented to the reader.
This book lacks that “je ne se quois” that The Historian has. In this book, the art bits are well-written and descriptive, but this book lacked that “something else” that made me want to keep turning pages. I couldn't get emotionally involved in the story the way I did with The Historian; the book is nearly 600 pages, and for that length a book should be compelling enough to make me want to read on. This book sadly just wasn’t that for me. It's expecially disappointing considering that I had such high hopes for this book--after all, we've waited five years for it! I’m sure my opinion won’t be popular, but that’s just the way I see this book.
"The Swan Thieves" is primarily the story of two men, Dr. Andrew Marlow and Robert Oliver, as well as love, art and obsession.
Robert Oliver is a brilliant artist who is remanded to psychiatric care after attempting to slash a painting with a pocketknife at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.. Andrew Marlow is the doctor who attempts to treat Oliver, but runs into a major problem- shortly after his commitment to the hospital, Oliver gives Marlow permission to speak with anyone about him, then refuses to speak anymore.
Day after day, Oliver draws and paints pictures of the same beautiful woman whom Marlow is convinced holds the key to helping Oliver. As Marlow tracks down and speaks with Robert's former wife and girlfriend, he becomes nearly as obsessed with the mystery woman in the paintings, causing him to straddle the lines of professional ethics. His search for answers, ostensibly in his patients behalf, lead him to travel up and down the east coast, to Mexico and then to Europe.
"The Swan Thieves" is an impressive story that has alternating chapters with historical elements, discusses art, particularly Impressionism, contains a mystery at its core, and deals with love- love realized, love lost and love that was never meant to be. Having said this, "The Swan Thieves" also contains some near-fatal flaws.
Kostova is a wordsmith who has an love of description, which, much like her character Robert Oliver, who was sidetracked from a bright career by his obsession, her story is often sidetracked by obsessively over-descriptive prose. The story arc is interesting, but could have benefited from an editor unafraid to assert some editorial control, allowing the same story to be told in three to four hundred pages rather than the nearly six-hundred page tome that it is. I often got bored and distracted, having to put the book down, as the story seemed to be progressing to nowhere (while reading the first 200 pages of "The Swan Thieves", I started and finished two other books).
The other problem that continues to stalk Kostova, as it did in "The Historian," is the inability to provide a satisfying ending. The climax of the story comes very late, wrapping up the story in an weak and insubstantial denouement. I already understood why Robert Oliver attacked the painting by about page 300 and all the final pages did was confirm what I already knew. As in "The Historian," the story overpowers and supplants the ending, making the book worth the read even with a disappointing ending.
Just be warned, a casual read this is not. "A" for effort, "B" for the story, but a "D" for the long-winded telling.
First, it needed an editor. This book absolutely did
Next, the characters are awful and all appear to be the same person. There is next to no differentiation among their voices. The only way to tell them apart is by their names. The narrator has to be one of the most pompous, egotistical, and unethical characters I've read in a long time and I don't think the author intended that. Every single character in this book is self-absorbed and self-important and no one more so than the narrator. The painter at the center of the story is the most likeable of them all, but that's because he is pretty much silent throughout the book. I'm sure if the author had let him talk more he would've been just as annoying as the rest. Instead we're treated to how Byronic and romantic he is as seen through the eyes of the other characters, but at least keeps his mouth shut.
Lastly, the denouement of all of this prattle (which wants to say something serious about art, but doesn't manage it), the key to the mystery is covered in about 2 pages towards the end of the book and trust me, if you blink you'll miss it. In fact, you're going to think you missed it because it's so insignificant and trivial that it is muddied up with all the rest of it.
There are two other books that cover some of this same territory and do it well - The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles and The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. Fowles' book is great for all the ways characters look different depending on context and perspective and Carey writes better than anything I've ever read about how a painter sees the world. Don't waste your time with this book. Go read Fowles and Carey instead.
The Swan Thieves begins by introducing us to Dr. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist whose newest patient is Robert Oliver, a painter who attacked a painting at the National Gallery of Art. Robert has recently been divorced from his wife Kate, has abandoned his latest girlfriend, and now refuses to speak . Since his patient refuses to talk, Marlow must delve into Robert’s personal life to find the mystery behind Robert’s display of violence and lack of communication, as well as discover the identity of the woman he paints over and over. In doing so, Marlow discovers a long hidden secret and scandal in the world of 19th century art.
This book is like an onion; fold after fragrant fold reveals something intriguing, spicy, and a little exotic. It’s a mystery, an old fashioned love story, and a new romance all at once. It’s not simply about a psychiatrist and his patient, it’s about the pressure of people’s expectations, and the lengths you go to to protect the ones you love. It’s about art, and passion, and beauty in barren landscapes.
Kostova artfully switches between the present dialogue of Marlow, who is telling this story to us, and the past entries of ancient letters and scenes from the 19th century, as well as chapters from other characters points of view. She skillfully rotates the other characters so that we’re never subjected to second-hand information. It’s almost as though there are several stories woven into one, but each of them as lovely as the one before, and the one after. It’s a multilayered novel, with more than one question and answer that Marlow, and now us readers, are searching for. Why did Robert attack the painting? Who are the women in his life, and what do they mean to him? How are the ancient letters he reads over and over related? Is Robert actually ill, or is there more to his silence and obsession? I found myself wondering all of these things, and hypothesizing on my own as to what would happen. There came a point, about seven-eighths of the way through the book, when part of the puzzle fell into place and I realized my breathing was so shallow, and my shoulders were so hunched, that I was completely tense waiting for the piece of information I had just received. I had to swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep breath and relax before I passed out on the train. That would have been great, right?
I am not sure which character I like best in this book, because truthfully Kostova’s characters are so tangible and realistic that I can’t not like any single one of them, even Robert. If you wanted her second book to follow the vampire theme from The Historian, you will be disappointed. But if you want a mystery, an old-fashioned honest-to-goodness mystery complete from fiction and imagination, then this is a book you must read. You will not regret it.
I’m torn between 4 and 5 stars on this one. It’s a fantastically wonderful, beautiful book and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
(I received this book from the Hachette Book Group for early review)
Review: To start with the good points: Holy cow, can Kostova write some gorgeous descriptive prose! Describing painting has to be second only to describing music in terms of difficulty, but Kostova is so good at describing the various artworks that she mentions that even I, with my extremely limited artistic vocabulary, could picture them as clear as day. In fact, she describes the paintings so vividly that I spent a very frustrating fifteen minutes on Google before I realized that neither Leda and the Swan nor Gilbert Thomas were real. (Nor is Beatrice de Clerval nor Olivier Vignot. Sisley is a real historical figure, although the painting which opens the book is either fictitious or is mis-dated in the book.)
However, while the writing was lovely and full of vivid detail, this story itself was seriously in need of an editor. It's an interesting idea for a story, and there are parts that move along well enough, but the simple fact is that there was simply not 500+ pages of story here. After a while, when Marlowe is hearing more details of Robert's life, and he's painting the mysterious woman yet again, and we get one more of Beatrice's letters from the past, I just wanted to yell "Get on with it already!" (I felt the same way near the end of The Historian; during their 95th stop in some small village i their eleventieth Eastern European country, I started wondering if we were even getting close to the point.) In The Swan Thieves, large sections - especially those spent filling in Robert's backstory without providing many useful clues to his condition - just dragged, made worse by the fact that I didn't really care for any of the characters. I pressed on, wanting to know the answer to the mysteries that the book had set out, but when I finally got to them, I was let down. Not that they didn't fit the story, just that they weren't interesting or compelling enough to merit the 500-odd pages that it took me to get there. 3 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Definitely not a fast read, but for those looking for a slow and contemplative book with a focus on art and art history, it will probably fit the bill.
My review: I really enjoyed this novel. I was not a fan of The Historian, I felt it was too convoluted and never finished it. But Swan Thieves was very different. This was a book I was able to savor. It was long but was a really beautiful story about a tortured artist in this century and the 19th century artist, de Clavel, who was limited by what was proper for a woman of her station. The reader learns about Oliver through other people and not through his own words. But we learn a lot through the women who loved him and the narrative switches between them, Marlowe, and Beatrice. Marlowe looks to find the connection between Oliver and de Clavel, other than old letters Robert has acquired.
Marlowe seem intent on finding these answers for himself as is his towards helping his patient. While the writing was beautiful, I'm not sure about the ethics of Marlowe, getting so involved with his patient. And the ending left something to be desired. It wasn't enough to justify the length of the book, but not bad enough to make me regret reading it. I would definitely recommend this novel, but maybe get it from the library. I especially loved all of the art on the book; Kostova is so descriptive of paintings that she imagines and that I would love to see.
Although the story grabbed my attention at first, for most of the first half of the book I waited for something interesting to happen. Then as things started to pick up in the second half, suddenly everything became very clear. It is throughout the second half of the story that the past becomes more involved with the present, where most of the action takes place. Although the reader doesn't really figure it out until the very end, I had this flash of insight and I knew exactly what had driven Robert Oliver crazy. Lo and behold, when the truth is revealed, I was right. And I hate when that happens.
Kostova lets many voices tell their own stories; however, once I started reading the various modern-day narrations, they didn't come across as individual or distinguishable from any of the other characters. And also, dialog just didn't ring true. In Kate's story, for example, which was a conversation between herself and Dr. Marlow, the dialog was stilted, filled with descriptions and verbiage that one person just wouldn't use with another in personal conversation. The same was true with Mary. I never really felt like I got to know anyone in this story, and I especially didn't think Marlow's character was believable or strong. Another negative -- after all of the time and energy I put into this book, the ending (with its explanations) didn't take very long, and just sort of zoomed right on up there.
Overall, the story was good, and the journey to the end was okay. I like books about people caught up in obsessions, and in that arena, the author did a great job. I loved Kostova's The Historian, but to compare the two wouldn't be fair. I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who enjoy love stories more than I do, and to people who like history interwoven with the present. Once again, however, I find myself swimming against the tide of people who were wowed with this book, so it's one of those you have to read for yourself rather than take my word for it. I do, however, predict it will be a bestseller very shortly.
Much of what I didn't like about it centers around how it begins. One of
I could have overlooked this flaw, if the story justified it. But it didn't.
My second criticism has to do with Marlowe, the psychologist handling Oliver's case. He was OTT, again intentionally, which the story didn't seem to justify.
For example, he set it up so that Oliver had paints and art supplies while hospitalized. Since he was in hospital because he was thought to be a danger to himself and others, this development seemed unrealistic to me. I can't imagine leaving a "dangerous" person unsupervised with oil-based paints.
Next, Marlowe starts a process of investigation that takes him to another state and even overseas. OTT. The fact that he didn't use the phone to interview people wasn't explained very well; it was just odd.
Third, Marlowe appears to have his own issues, which I don't want to give away. But neither do I think they were well-developed. It was a sub-plot at best. But I never understood why Marlowe had the issues he has.
Finally, Oliver just walks away at the end. Not cured. But somehow miraculously understanding his manic depression and how to deal with it. Again, it's unrealistic.
I give the book 3/5 stars. I liked the premise, the haunting mystery, the detail about art history - all pluses. But the flaws made me impatient to finish the book.
I will probably continue to read Kostova, but I will also continue to hope for a tighter story and better editing.
Read my full review at The Book Lady's Blog.
I found a few of the main characters to be slightly annoying though, especially Robert Oliver who I found to be a completely selfish, self-centered pig of a man (although I suppose the point of his being a tortured artist was why he was portrayed as such), who should never have married the beautiful woman, his wife Kate, who features prominently in the book. I found the treatment of so called confidential personal histories by Andrew Marlow laughable at times, who seemed to have no integrity and respect for his line of work, in his own obsessive pursuit of the story behind Oliver's attack on the painting 'Leda' and subsequent incarceration at the psychiatric hosptial where Dr. Marlow worked.
When Kostova introduced certain characters through the correspondence between Beatrice and olivier, I put the pieces together quite early on and was correct in my thinking that...... well, I don't want to give the ending away! I agree with others on here though, that the ending was cobbled together and concluded in a few short chapters, although since I had figured it out anyway I wasn't too disappointed, and was actually still quite touched/shocked to read the ending, and what I knew to be true anyway, which for me is a sign of a book that was still captivating to the end.
I was very excited to read the next novel of author Elizabeth Kostova after loving The Historian. I had a hard time getting through this one however.
The story is about a painter who is arrested while trying to attack a painting in the National Gallery of Art with a
The story meanders through two time lines, one in the 1890's and the present. Long, seemingly important descriptive passages lead nowhere. Some characters and scenes could have been eliminated focusing the reader more on the plot, than on the author's well researched descriptions.
The psychiatrist behaves nothing like a real psychiatric professional, taking major liberties with his patients care both in person and through his research. This doctor should lose his license!
I learned quite a bit about the business of painting, from both the artists and the viewers perspective. The thought, preparation, execution, review and final finished product from the artist. The emotion, the 'aliveness', use of color, shading, and the perspective of the picture or composition of the picture from the viewers perspective. I was introduced to painters, some who I knew and some not. I was intrigued enough to research them and their works. But all this information just seemed to muddy the story waters with no real purpose.
The story was intriguing. I'm glad I read it. But there definitely should have been a tighter edit. I would have enjoyed it so much more!
Not so for the Swan Thieves. On this CD, Kostova's work has graduated to well-known actors Treat Williams and Anne Heche as readers. Sadly, this tale is even more tedious than the Historian. The endless and seemingly pointless description, the details, the annoying psychiatrist...ugh. Not even the visual image of Treat Williams as I listen can make me go on.
Someone with an interest in fine art may find the book engaging, as may someone with a family member who struggles with depression. In fairness to the novel, I will say that perhaps it gets better later on, but with so many books and so little time to read them, I can't go on.
I recently listened to Zadie Smith's *On Beauty* and I was gripped from the first CD, so I know those great books are out there. It's my job to find them.
So long, Swan Thieves. Maybe some other time.
But I doubt it.
The Swan Thieves definitely lives up to the anticipation. The mystery surrounding Oliver's actions is enough to maintain a reader's interest, as one follows Marlow's journey to discover Oliver's secrets. Ms. Kostova describes the world of art and painting in enough detail that even the most art-ignorant reader can follow the story as well as the details. Her descriptions of Oliver's past loves are so realistic that one feels a bit like a voyeur and is physically present as the action occurs.
Ms. Kostova's strengths lie in her ability to piece together words to form a picture. She is remarkable at doing so in such a way that forces the reader to savor each sentence, each word slowly. This may seem tedious but in reality is one of the most amazing feats of the book. In addition, Ms. Kostova makes a reader work. She never directly states the answers to the mysteries but provides the reader with enough clues for a reader to be able to solve them himself. Again, this is not a detraction but rather a definite attraction.
As mentioned above, Ms. Kostova's choices in subject matter are very brave. Mental illness is typically depressing, while art, more specifically painting in oils, is not a subject that would necessarily appeal to the masses. Her research, though, is what helps the reader overcome these possible deficiencies. In fact, her research is so thorough that one has no difficulties picturing just what she describes.
However, the book is not just about art but rather about relationships. Oliver's relationships with former loves and with Marlow, as well as Marlow's relationships with everyone he encounters on his search for the truth, highlight the bonds that form, morph and fade throughout life. Ms. Kostova shows how dangerous obsession can truly be to a person, to his or her psyche, and how it can impact generations to come. In Ms. Kostova's world, there truly is a fine line between love and obsession, one that people can easily cross without even knowing it.
As with all good things, there are a few items of caution to address. This book, as marvelous as it is, may not be for everyone. There is a distinct lack of traditional action and adventure as well as many pages of descriptions of painting and artwork. The mystery is subtle and slow-paced compared to her first novel. This means that some people will consider The Swan Thieves to be boring and not worth the effort, for effort it does require. A reader must be actively engaged in the book to catch all the clues Ms. Kostova provides.
The Swan Thieves requires deliberate reading. Ms. Kostova's language and syntax is absolutely breathtaking and deserves the time needed to appreciate her gift with words. The entire book is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, Henry James, or other classic novelists where the danger is not life-threatening but the descriptions and characters compel a reader to continue with a novel. Again, this is a very good thing.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed The Swan Thieves. Robert Olivier's greater-than-life personality leaps off the pages, while Andrew Marlow's desire to help his client propels the story and deepens the mystery even further. The relationships mentioned add needed tension and a layer of complexity while the art world takes on a life of its own. Added together, this is one unforgettable book, brought together by the skill of Ms. Kostova's writing.
See? You understand quite well what I am saying, and you got it the first time, but I went on and on and it gets a bit old, doesn't it?
By the time I put the book down, I could not care less what happened to the obsessed, self-absorbed, artificially-repressed-with-life painter Robert Oliver. I had no sympathy for the angst felt by the rejected Mary. I was glad that Kate was shed of the albatross that Robert had become to her. I was convinced that Andrew needed badly to have sex since he seemed to fantasize about every woman he ran across. I was not impressed by the love affair of Beatrice and her uncle-by-marriage.
Honestly, I rolled my eyes so much at this story I probably should make an appt with my opthomologist, but really wanted to finish it. However, I started to feel that it was sucking days from my existence. Deciding to put it down unfinished was a relief. I have also decided to remove another book by Kostova, The Historian, off of my TBR list.
There was one particularly horrible transition during a love scene where the main character rambles on about an anatomy class for painters. She could
I adored Kostova's The Historian, but I wasn't sure how I'd feel about this one. I mean, I'm all about vampires and Vlad. But artists? Not so much. The psychiatric angle did intrigue me a bit, so I thought I'd request it from Early Reviewers.
And I ended up loving it. Kostova simply writes beautifully. That can make all the difference in a story. A lesser writer would not have been able to engage me like Kostova did. Sure, I wanted to find out why the painting was destroyed. Who Olivier and Beatrice were (and if there was a link between Robert Oliver and Olivier the artist--the names were just too alike). And of course, would Oliver ever speak, ever tell his story? I was nearly driven to look up the historical painters to see if they really existed. (Heck, I still might--it was good enough that I honestly have no clue if they're completely fictional.)
So a damn good novel even if painters are not high on your list of who you want to read about.
Knowing that Robert is an artist, Andrew brings him some art supplies and notices that he draws and paints the same woman over and over again. Andrew discovers some old letters, written in French, in Robert’s room and copies them and has them translated.
Andrew becomes almost obsessed with Robert’s case and tries to solve the mystery surrounding it by any means possible – at times even crossing legal and ethical boundaries to do so.
I quickly became captivated by the story and the writing of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. There are two parallel stories in this book – the modern day one with Andrew and Robert, and another one that takes place in France during the Age of Impressionism, and I found both stories equally compelling. The modern day story is told from alternating points of view between Andrew, Robert’s ex-wife, and Robert’s ex-lover and the other story is told mainly through the translated letters.
There are two mysteries in The Swan Thieves – I was able to figure one of them out fairly early, but didn’t know the results of the other until the very end of the book and it left me rather stunned. There are also several love stories in the book, but I wouldn’t call it overly romantic. This book is really about passion – for art, life and love.
The Swan Thieves is 561 pages long, but I was so enthralled with the story, it didn’t feel like a long book. I think Elizabeth Kostova has a wonderful way with words and I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with this book.
First the opening scene. It took a while and some time with the descriptions of a painter’s approach to a canvas to fully appreciate it. It is like a painting, but with words. Kostova builds the scene with the weather and the woman. The snow, the dark, the determination, the bundle. Then at the end, there is the painter who has also built this scene, but needs an anchor. Along comes our woman and he’s got one in just a few strokes. For Kostova, the counterpoint is the painter; for the painter, it is the woman. Very neat and beautifully rendered.
Some have said that Marlow is a selfish, unethical person and maybe he is, but for the most basic of reasons - curiosity. There isn’t any malice in his actions and he comes off as tentative, gentle and he tries hard not to impose his will on Robert’s women.
The letters are an interesting device, but they aren’t consistent. First we only get Berenice’s to Olivier. They’re sort of bland and polite, then they change. When that happens we start to get direct narrative from that time instead of correspondence. After a time we get Olivier’s letters to Berenice as well. It’s uneven and I think apart from the fact that Robert is obsessed by B and needs to read them every day, they could have been dispensed with.
The timelines come together well as does Robert’s backstory, although it’s unclear why he snapped and became fixated on Beatrice. Kate and Mary are both remarkably calm and assured in the the help they give Marlow (nice detective name, huh?) and the intimate details of their lives with him they allow to be shared. It’s kind of amazing and a little odd that at least one of them isn’t raging.
I won’t go into the plot and how things tie together, but they do and in satisfying, but somewhat predictable ways. That didn’t detract though. I liked having my suspicions turn out to be true and I’m grateful to have read this at a time when I most needed it.
A long meandering book that quickly comes to an end once the mystery has been solved, without really exploring the conclusion/reasons with the same depth that accompanied the rest of the story.
Read this book if you must, but I'd forgo the audio version so that you can speed read the irrelevant parts (who cares that Mary buried her father's underwear in the garden? does not contribute to character development in any way!) and reread the parts where important information is quickly dropped in. But unless you love art and painting, you can skip this one.
The Swan Thieves follows the attempts of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow to unravel the secret of why
At first Marlow investigates merely to fulfill his professional obligation to Oliver, but very shortly finds himself just as obsessed with the mystery as Oliver is obsessed with the woman. He interviews Oliver’s ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend, co-workers. He steals (“borrows”) a pack of aged letters that Oliver rereads ever day to have them translated so he can read them. Ultimately, he travels across America and then across the ocean to find the truth. Oliver’s attack on the canvas has its roots in history, in a crime that was committed over a hundred years before.
The book was interesting- I wanted very badly to know the secrets hidden in the past- but it just moved too slowly. I have no problem with long books, but this one just did not have enough important things to fill the space, and is instead filled with detail that did not move the story forward at all. The characters did not engage me much- artist Oliver is self-absorbed and his women enable that, Marlow is a man who seems unable to realize that he himself is caught in an obsession that causes him to ignore confidentiality, and the women, artists all, are willing to give up their work for love. And we never do learn what caused Oliver’s obsession in the first place. The mystery woman was real; the pack of letters was hers. Is there a supernatural element to this novel, as there was to The Historian? Or did a chain of every day events lead Oliver to her? And how is it that less than 24 hours after starting to speak again, Oliver is released from the hospital with no visible support system, no where for him to go, no plan of action?
I’m not sorry I took the time to finish this book, but I do feel robbed of some time, as I think this book could have been a much better one. Beautifully written, but lacking a soul.