Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova (audio)


If you are one of the 1.5 million people who have read Kostova's mega-hit debut The Historian, you already know the depths at which she can take you with her long-winded, magical story-telling. Kostova is famous for her slow, methodical building of a mystery, her meandering but beautiful prose, and her use of letters to allow the reader a peek into history. It is no wonder that the release of her second novel, The Swan Thieves, she had the literary and blogging communities in a dither (including moi).

She takes a decidedly more gentle tact this time around. Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist who is also an accomplished artist. For this reason, Marlow is assigned to take on the care of famous artist Robert Oliver, who brutally attacked a painting in National Gallery, then proceeded to become mute once institutionalized. Marlow becomes almost obsessed with the mystery behind Oliver's silence, and begins to investigate and interview important individuals in Oliver's life, specifically his ex-wife and his girlfriend. He also discovers letters in Oliver's possession from 19th century France between a beautiful young painter, Beatrice de Clerval, and her uncle Olivier Vignot. Through narration from each of these individuals, we are plunged into their stories. Oliver's wife's frustration with her husband's eccentric ways. Oliver's girlfriend's desperation in finding a first love with someone just out of reach. Romantic and yet forbidden love between Beatrice and Olivier. And at the heart of each story is the sweeping, grand love of creating art on the canvas.

I have very conflicting emotions about this novel. I really cannot deny the beauty and fragility and complexity of this story. It is one where you are immersed in the journey. I fell in love with Beatrice and her uncle Olivier. My heart skipped a beat when I reached those parts of the story where we learned about them.

And while his character development was vivid, I did NOT like Robert Oliver. At all. Was I supposed to like a man whose romantic but juvenile obsession destroyed the lives of everyone who loved him? Was I supposed to be endeared by his undependability, his slobby habits, and his madness? I became highly annoyed by his antics, his self-absorption and selfishness, and didn't feel that it could (or should) be chalked up to an artist's creative spirit and dismissed.

I also was not invested in Andrew Marlow either. He seemed rather dull and plodding. I did, however, truly enjoy hearing from Oliver's ex-wife Kate and girlfriend Mary. They were both strong and interesting female characters, and combined with the strength of Beatrice, were truly pillars that supported the entire plot.

While listening to this novel on audio, my impression was that it seemed very gentle, wandering and dreamlike (like an Impressionist painting?). Maybe too gentle. It was an engaging story, but had I been in a less tolerant mood, I might have been a little bored and wondering when we were going to get to the point already. One of Kostova's trademarks is her ability to go on, and we all know this going into it, but it could have benefited from a couple hundred less pages.

From an audio standpoint, we were treated with a multi-narrator production, which will rarely let you down. Some of my best audio experiences have resulted because of multiple narrators. In this situation, we had voices for Marlow, Kate, Mary, Beatrice and Olivier, and was extremely entertaining.

Have you read either of Kostova's novels? What were your impressions?

3.5 out of 5 stars



24 comments:

Melody said...

Great review, Sandy!
I've heard so many great things about this author but yet I haven't read any of her books (though I've them in my pile and I swear I can hear them calling my name a few times, LOL).

Alice Teh said...

I've been waiting for your review on this book, Sandy. I'm glad to see this post. From the look of things, I might delay getting it.

I need to read THE HISTORIAN, which is in my TBR pile but the sheer size of it is enough to make me procrastinate.

Lenore said...

I read THE HISTORIAN and thought it needed some brutal editing. Probably won't read her again.

Jessica said...

Everything I've read about this author has put me off and this confirms even more shes not really my thing. Thanks for the review.

bermudaonion said...

The Swan Thieves was my first experience with Kostova and I read it instead of listening to it. I thin I enjoyed it more than you did. I didn't like Robert Oliver, but I didn't think we were supposed to.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review! I want not to want to read this because it is long, and I'm sure I would want to punch Robert Oliver.

Bonnie said...

I haven't read The Historian but listened to The Swan Thieves on audio as well. I agree, it could have been edited down a bit but I thoroughly enjoyed the book as an audio. The multi narrator approach worked well for me. I didn't like Robert either but did like Dr Marlow. I also was enthralled with Beatrice's story and like how that was wrapped up in the end.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I did enjoy The Historian, but it had its faults too. I'll probably still get around to The Swan Thieves at some point, but it is good to know that I should expect some flaws. I think I'll get the text version though - I remember The Historian as being quite rambling and I couldn't stand an audio like that.

Ti said...

I could not stand The Historian and many in my book club divorced it after 100 pages or so.

However, I won the audio version of The Swan Thieves so the timing of your review is perfect. I'm glad that it has multiple narrators because I will fall asleep at the wheel if it is anything like The Historian.

Joanna said...

Hi, first time here and you have a really nice blog !

I've heard great things about The Historian, and was wanting to give her a try for some time now and was wondering if The Swan Thieves would be just as great. Now I might be having second thoughts .. Great review by the way ..

The Bumbles said...

Every time I read one of your audio reviews I wonder how differently your opinion of the book would be if you had read it vs. listened. Do you think it makes a huge difference? What percentage to you read vs. listen to? Are there any that you have experienced both ways?

Anna said...

I have The Historian, but haven't read it yet. I think I'll read that one first, as I'm still not sure whether I want to read The Swan Thieves.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Andreea said...

Thanks for your review, Sandy. I wanted to read this book, but now with your review, I don't know if I still want to.

Nymeth said...

You're not alone, Sandy. I've yet to read this one myself, but I've seen other bloggers say similar thing. Personally I felt that even The Historian could have used a good edit, though I did enjoy it. I wonder how I'd feel about this one.

Carrie K. said...

I have this checked out from the library on audio to rip to my computer for future listening. Maybe when I'm in the mood for something a little more slow-paced.

Zibilee said...

I just won this audio book in a giveaway. I also have read her first book, The Historian, and though I thought it was a wonderful read, there were parts that were a little slow for me. I liked your review on this and will keep your comments in mind when I am listening. Very honest and thoughtful review, Sandy. I appreciate it!

ds said...

My feelings about The Historian were mixed. I love the way you reviewed this one, Sandy, but I don't think I'll be diving into it.

Jenners said...

Sorry it didn't really work for you. I've heard mixed reviews on this one ... some love it and some feel like "eh."

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

I do love your reviews, Sandy. My MIL has the hard-copy of this novel and I was going to borrow it. After reading your review, I feel better about putting it off until I've read some more of my own darned books.

Nicely done, as usual.

PS....I'm still trying to figure out how on earth you get so many audio books in. I'm still plodding thru the damned Outlander books (unabridged) on audio, LOL.

Iliana said...

Can you believe that what's keeping me from The Historian is it's size? Shame, I know!

I'm interested in both books but we'll see when I get to them :)

Darlene said...

I'm still listening to this one. I guess my biggest problem is I don't feel any big need to get back to it although when I was listening to it I was enjoying it.

Kathleen said...

I've had The Historian on my shelf forever (it seems). It sounds like that is the one I want to read first but I will want to read this one too!

Matt said...

usually it's a good indication to me when you said our heart skipped a beat. You said that for Fingersmith as well. Okay...I have never read this author, and I get the impression that I should read Swan Thieves before The Historian?

Melissa said...

I can't decide if her books would be a good fit for me or not. I have The Historian on my shelf, but have put off reading it due to the mixed reviews I've seen.