I have a an understandable awe for novelists who can craft a great story so densely it covers 500 pages or more of text. I find that feat quite remarkable and am pretty sure I lack the the wherewithal to pull it off myself. I am always a little worried when I am writing a book that I will find myself writing “The End” twenty-thousand words before I am supposed to. Brief is good but so is inclusive. Brief and incomplete is bad just as comprehensive but unmanageable is bad. I think something in the middle is what we like best. I admit I get kind of snarky when a good book ends too soon.

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is a tome of respectable proportions and I must say, despite its heft, I couldn’t wait to crack it open each night before bed, even at the risk of it falling into my face as sleep pursued me and giving me a shiner.

Kostova’s The Historian (which I shamefully admit is still on my TBR stack along with far too many others) was a New York Times bestseller and won her all kinds of acclaim. Her Swan Thieves is a wonderfully told story with a unique plot. I especially liked the story construction since it is similar to what I have employed with the book I am writing at the moment and am half way through: a contemporary story that intersects with a historical thread through a collection of very old letters.

The synopsis from the publisher: “Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe has a perfectly ordered life—solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient. In response, Marlowe finds himself going beyond his own legal and ethical boundaries to understand the secret that torments this genius, a journey that will lead him into the lives of the women closest to Robert Oliver and toward a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism. Ranging from American museums to the coast of Normandy, from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, from young love to last love . . . a story of obsession, the losses of history, and the power of art to preserve human hope.”

Some reviewers, especially ardent fans of Kostova’s debut novel have said it moves too slow and they compare it to The Historian, a thriller with a vampire theme. There are no vampires in The Swan Thieves, hence no one is being chased by the undead, so I would venture the pace is indeed a horse of a different color. I suppose this is one of those times it’s good I haven’t read the debut book first, because I really enjoyed the calm pacing of The Swan Thieves, it is a story about flawed people and their struggle to rise above their flaws – and most of the time there is no ticking clock with a story like that.

I especially liked the idea that a man could fall in love with a woman in a painting. Love at first sight with a huge twist. The object of his affection is a woman born over a hundred years before he was. She is already dead. He is in love with a memory that doesn’t even belong to him. I also liked the twist at the end that I cannot tell you about with out spoiling it. Motivation is everything when you are writing a story that is completely character-driven. And that motivation needs to be intensely satisfying to the reader when you get to the last page.

I recommend The Swan Thieves not for its pacing or its thrill factor but for its exploration into human character and the idea that art is more than just paint on a canvas. It communicates truth. Just like good stories do.

But I think I shall move The Historian up to the top of the stack . . .

Author: Susan

This post has 2 Comments

  1. Anonymous on July 11, 2010 at 6:50 am

    You've prompted me to move THE SWAN THIEVES into my TBR stack. And please tell me no swans are harmed in the passages of this book. (:-(

    Great interview with Carla Stewart, too. Thanks.

    Mary Kay

  2. Kristen on September 4, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Susan- The Historian was an amazing read. I could scarce put it down, and it had me glancing over my shoulder for the next two weeks! I will definitely have to check out the Swan Thieves, thanks!-Kristen

    -I also wanted to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed the Shape of Mercy. Very good read!

    http://www.kristennicolejohnson.blogspot.com

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