Nenia Campbell's Reviews > The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
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Mar 06, 14

bookshelves: litry-fiction
Read from February 19 to 27, 2012

I loved The Historian. When I found out that Elizabeth Kostova was doing another one of those historical stories that's centered around a famous painting, I was super excited (if you check out my historical fiction/"lies my author told me" shelf, you'll notice that those types of stories are prominent). The Swan Thieves has two main characters: Marlow, a psychiatrist; and Oliver, his patient, and a troubled painter who was arrested after attempting to stab a painting called Leda, portraying a swan-shaped Zeus's rape of the woman of the same name.

The Swan Thieves endeavors to achieve so much that the overall effect comes across as half-hearted and empty. I like description, but here, I feel that there was too much of it; and too much of this excess description was irrelevant and did nothing to further the plot, and so bogged it down.

I liked the psychological angle (because I'm a psychology major - holla!), but enough wasn't explained to make it credible. Kostova never explicitly said (in the 350 pages I managed to read) what, exactly, Oliver was suffering from. The descriptions were vague and usually passive, i.e. "a diagnosis was made, which I happened to agree with" or "the previous prescriptions said a lot." Oliver was revealed, at one point, to be on lithium, which is generally used to treat bipolar disorder (BD), also known as manic-depressive disorder, which explains Oliver's cyclic painting frenzies and lethargy, but he was also prescribed antidepressants, which you don't usually give people with BD, as it can launch them into a manic phase. As for the antipsychotics, those are generally for hallucinations. People with schizophrenia or depression-inspired hallucinations often take those, but it wasn't quite clear that Oliver was hallucinating. If this was an attempt of Kostova's to gain credibility, she lost me: I was completely flummoxed.

I also didn't like Marlow. It was a little creepy how he insinuated himself into the lives of Oliver's wife and mistress, and how in detail he described his sexual attraction to them. Way to stay indifferent, doctor! In fact, I felt like his interest and handling of the case as a whole was unprofessional. I raised my eyebrows when he installed an art studio in his patient's room: toxic paints and sharp brushes for someone who is possibly suicidal? Doesn't seem too smart to me. Plus, a psychiatrist should never lash out at a patient, no matter how frustrating they are! And Marlow does, bringing up the woman in his paintings and Mary, asking why she's never visited him if she cares so much, etc. I was like, WTFFFFFFFFFFFFFF.

The Swan Thieves, I think, was trying to be like Possession. There were distinct similarities, such as the illicit romances of both past and present intertwined by epistolary correspondence, their descendants, and the people researching the aforementioned. However, it lacks the Byronic passion and Gothic atmosphere that appealed to me so much in Possession and it was mostly this, coupled with the long-windedness of the author and the abhorrent psychiatrist, that made the book scarcely tolerable.

I loved The Historian a lot - but that book was rich in both atmosphere and substance. It had a main character I really liked and could sympathize with. This book has suspense - why did Oliver try to stab the Leda painting? - but the author's conscious attempt to wave this over my head was annoying and 350 pages in, I was forced to give up when I realized that my desire to find out the mystery was eclipsed by my desire to punch Marlow in the face. I don't want to put anyone off reading this book but if you're expecting this to be like The Historian, you might want to save yourself the $25.
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Reading Progress

02/27/2012 page 302
53.0% "Ahhhh! I'm getting bored but I *need* to find out what happens! *continues reading*"

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