Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova's second novel, is a difficult book to sum up. This mystery-romance-historical novel is the story of a psychiatrist's life that is turned upside down when an artist with a mysterious past becomes his patient. It is an intriguing, involving and hugely flawed giant of a novel which is wholly enjoyable yet mildly dull.

Before I reel off a large number of complaints that I have about the book, I want to point out that I did actually like it. I really did. It was enjoyable and extremely well written in some ways, whilst the plot is an interesting love tangle, which the author deals with well. Kostova is a master of descriptive prose and has a unique style that is highly floral yet often engaging.

But there are so many flaws...

I think by far my biggest issue with the book are the characters. Despite being largely likeable, each of the characters begin to grate very quickly. This is due to the fact that Kostova only has one voice. Each character, whether male or female; old or young(ish); psychiatrist or housewife; uses the exact same tone coupled with some incredibly pretentious vocabulary. They are all so mind-achingly middle-class you start to wonder if Elizabeth Kostova has ever left the country-club. Also, it seems that in Kostova's world people are more than happy to spill their most intimate and private memories to anyone off the street who claims to be a psychiatrist. I mean really, do these people have no decency?!

One last little flaw (ok, maybe not that little), which in fact could also be applicable to The Historian, is the ending. I can only guess that Kostova was so involved in writing The Swan Thieves that she got to page 500 and then realised that she really should finish it soon, so threw together a few pages which in a matter of paragraphs managed to simultaneously consolidate a relationship that had only started to bloom a couple of chapters ago; cure a psychiatric patient of an illness that had plagued him for years; and solve a 300 year old mystery. Impressive in a way and yet frustrating and unsatisfying in a literary sense.

Once again I must say that despite its many, many flaws, I really did enjoy The Swan Thieves. Although not as exciting or enjoyable as The Historian, it really does draw you in to the world of art, history and romance that Kostova has created – although looking back I find it hard to see how! In all honesty I'm not a fan of classical art, historical fiction or romance, so to have held my attention so well it must have been doing something right.

Recommended – but you have been warned!

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