Book Chat: ‘The Swan Thieves’ by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’m very much a plot driven reader. I read a lot of fantasy and crime/thrillers because what I want more than anything when I’m reading is a solid, driven, well-paced plot. Fewer things are more likely to have me putting a book hastily back on a bookshop shelf than phrases like “brilliant character study” or “wonderfully descriptive”. I obviously want my books to have well-developed characters and to include immersive descriptions, but I don’t want either to be all I’m going to get. I’m also by no means an art aficionado; I like an art gallery or museum as much as the next person but I would be the first to admit that it just isn’t something I know a lot about. I tell you all of this so that you’ll know that on paper, I should have hated The Swan Thieves. Slow, meandering and with so much detail about art.

I bought it at least nine years ago just as I was getting back into reading because I’d read and loved The Historian. My tastes changed all the time in that phase so I shelved it and ignored it for years. I was never quite disinterested enough to get rid of it but it also never pushed its way up my TBR. It might not have done now but for me randomly putting it on a shortlist of the titles I’d owned the longest for my husband to choose from, and him actually choosing it! Which would have been stupid because I actually really liked it.

Not a lot happens in The Swan Thieves. Early on, renowned artist Robert Oliver is put into the pyschiatric care of Dr Andrew Marlowe after attacking a painting in the New York National Gallery of Art with a knife. Robert refuses to speak so Dr Marlowe spends the rest of the novel trying to piece together his life using a pack of old letters that he finds amongst his possessions and interviews with his former partners. We get a few perspectives – Dr Marlowe’s, those of the women he meets as they recount the stories of their relationships with Robert, and the letters between two 19th century artists. There’s a sort-of mystery surrounding those artists but, for the most part, this is the story of Robert’s life and how that artist mystery affected him. For 600+ pages.

And yet the writing makes this seemingly undramatic plot something really amazing. Shortly after meeting Robert, Andrew visits the National Gallery of Art to look at the painting that Oliver tried to take a knife to. The description was so incredible that I googled the name of the painting and the artist so that I could see it. Neither exist. I swear, it seemed so real that I could clearly picture that painting. I still can. Kostova makes the art in her novel seem vital and interesting. She makes art itself seem vital and interesting. It was a stunning feat. Even the descriptions of characters painting was captivating, and even writing that I know that seems bonkers.

It took me two weeks to read the hefty novel, which would also usually frustrate me. With The Swan Thieves, though, I just settled into it. Reading it was…soothing somehow. I was totally wrapped up in all of the stories, especially the historical story told through the letters and, later on, its own chapters. Some of the historical characters were real, some weren’t. They all seemed pretty bloody real to me.

I gave this four stars in the end because there was something about Dr Marlowe’s story that just didn’t quite ring as true for me as the rest of the novel. We’re told repeatedly that he’s a brilliant psychiatrist and yet he spends barely any time with his patient (shouting at him fairly regularly when he does see him), choosing instead to drive around the US meeting with his former partners and researching a group of century-dead artists. I mean, clearly I understand why because that’s sort of the point of the book but it seemed like a bit of a weak link in the middle. It didn’t ruin the book for me but it did make some of the segues pretty rocky and knocked off that all important fifth star.

Overall: This isn’t a book for everybody. There’s a lot I’d usually grumble about – middle class characters with what really are inconsequential problems in the grand scheme of things that they whine about regularly, meandering musings on the nature and permanence of art, and an admittedly slightly clumsy romantic plot. And still I loved it. If you want something a little more quiet and ponderous with some fantastic writing, I’d genuinely recommend digging out this backlist title.

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Date finished: 24 May 2020

Pictured edition published: by Sphere Books in 2010

Source: Bought

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