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Book Review: The Swan Thieves

BY REBECCA KOONS | JANUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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Elizabeth Kostova’s sophomore release, The Swan Thieves, doesn’t live up to its potential.

With the critical success of The Historian come certain expectations about the author’s latest novel, released on Jan. 12. Despite the gripping premise and even more fascinating-sounding plot, Kostova fails to give readers a sense of who the pivotal characters really are.

Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist and art enthusiast who finds himself taking in Robert Oliver, a relatively well-known artist whose life has practically been destroyed by his obsession with an artist of long ago. Upon coming into Marlow’s care after attacking (and nearly destroying) a painting titled Leda at the National Gallery of Art, Oliver is reticent, and hardly says a word to Marlow throughout the novel. Because Oliver won’t talk, Marlow finds himself confiding with the women who were once a part of Oliver’s life — his ex-wife, Kate, and former student Mary.

The mystery lies in not only why Oliver had this sudden breakdown, but also in figuring out his connection to another woman he frequently draws.

While the concept keeps readers turning the 561 pages of the mammoth story, there is too much buildup and explanation for anything earth-shattering to occur by the novel’s end. After all of the suspense, conclusions come about too conveniently for such an involved story that takes such a long time to wade through.

The most interesting characters in the novel are the women in Oliver’s life. Kate was the first girl who fell hard for Oliver, and she consequently found herself abandoned by him for the sake of his art. Mary, who befriended Oliver as an art student, eventually becomes the older man’s lover. Both of these women harbor mysteries of their own, and Kostova only scratches the surface of their personalities, leaving out any background information to make the reader truly care about them. All her audience gets is the women’s experiences with Oliver, who also becomes an afterthought in light of Marlow’s crusade.

Marlow starts his investigation of Oliver’s past with good intentions, but there comes a point when these endeavors become more self-serving than anything else. Marlow can’t help but lust after his female counterparts, most notably Mary. His mission to help a struggling patient reads more like a puzzle he’s hell-bent on solving — all the while holding tinges of hope that he’ll get a little action out of it.

Coming away from The Swan Thieves without a real connection to Oliver, the central character, is probably the biggest letdown of the novel. Though Kostova utilizes beautiful prose and intense sensory detail, the reader is left with one mystery solved and another far from it.


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