Review: “The Swan Thieves” by Elizabeth Kostova


For the past several years, if you asked me who my favorite author was I would answer Elizabeth Kostova. Her debut novel, The Historian, is a masterpiece of modern literature. A modern Dracula tale that mixes a multitude of genres–horror, mystery, historical fiction, history, travel, and suspense–into a literary cake for the ages, it was guaranteed to be an international bestseller.

Several years later, Kostova released her second novel, The Swan Thieves. It took me a while to clear up my backlog in order to get to it, but as soon as I was able I jumped on it. Here is a brief synopsis followed by a few of my thoughts.

A painter named Robert Oliver is detained after attempting to stab a painting at an art gallery. Confined to psychiatric care, DC-based shrink Andrew Marlow takes up his case. Very reluctant to speak even a word, Robert simply provides his permission for Marlow to talk to whoever he needed to and a collection of letters between two 1870s painters, which for some reason seem to affect Robert deeply. After this the painter clams up and refuses to speak. The search for answers to Robert’s mysterious condition leads his doctor all over the world.

I’m just going to be honest and not beat around the bush. This is one of the worst books I have ever read. In a way I know it is very unfair to compare it to Kostova’s first book, but if you were to look up reviews of The Swan Thieves online almost every single one of them inevitably gets back to The Historian.

There is nothing of interest in this book. Arguably, the only parts of the book that really stand out are the letters, which give very brief glimpses into the artistic and social society of 19th Century France. Kostova inserts these letters at her leisure, out of rhythm with the rest of the story and having precious little to do with the plot. Allegedly, they exist as clues to Robert Oliver’s actions but fail miserably in their duty. While it is a letter that provides the bombshell revelation (to exaggerate a little) in the final pages, it is a separate document form those we had been forced to consume over the course of 500 or so pages. It was a let down all in itself.

Most of the book involves the reader listening to Robert’s ex-wife and former mistress encounter extremely long, detailed accounts of their lives with Robert Oliver. These accounts are set against a backdrop of brief visits that Marlow has with the women or a few personal memoirs of the mistress, who rather quickly but expectedly becomes the unnecessary love interest of Dr. Marlow. After these end, the doctor quickly hurried to Mexico and then Paris to talk to two elderly experts on art before the “mystery” essentially solves itself.

That is the book, ladies and gentlemen. As with its predecessor, it weaves together several different genres–historical fiction, mystery, and art history–nicely and the prose is some of the best I’ve ever read. But there is nothing to get excited about in the book. There is no villain, no conflict, and what ended up as a novel could easily have been a novella if it weren’t for the mostly-unnecessary relationship accounts that provide the bulk of the book. They provided a build-up for a book that never happened. The Historian opened up with a neck being bitten. If anything, I wish there had been even half of that kind of physical content present here. It would have made for a much less clinical reading experience.

If I had to play the stars game, I would give The Swan Thieves 3 out of 5, simply because the prose was masterful and the letters gems. Otherwise it would be a 1.

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