Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Review: The Swan Thieves

by Elizabeth Kostova
published by Little Brown and Company
copyright 2010
rating: 4.5 out of 5

Some book reviews are easier to write than others. Have you ever experienced that? I read some books that I absolutely love and I can hardly wait to share that love with you. Other books I read and for one reason or another they don't quite resonate with me, and I find that I can quickly summarize those reading experiences and move on. But sometimes I finish a book and it is as though my brain cannot focus on one clear direction for a review. I know that I liked the book and I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience - but why? And how can I properly relate my experience to something that my readers can understand and properly decide if this is a book that they will also enjoy? I feel such a sense of responsibility to accurately write a review, that it paralyzes me. Such is the case with The Swan Thieves.

I have not yet read - although it has languished on my bookshelf for months - The Historian - so I cannot compare this to the author's debut novel. I did read several book reviews for The Swan Thieves before I received my library copy, and with each review I somehow knew that this would be a book for me. How could it not? I enjoy dabbling in armchair psychology - and the main character is this book is himself a successful psychiatrist. I have a deep desire to learn more about art appreciation and have chosen to focus my initial studies on Impressionism -- the strong sub-plot subject matter in the novel. I enjoy a good mystery that keeps me guessing until the end. I gravitate towards novels that focus on character relationships rather than adventurous plots. I marvel at an author's ability to write from various points of view in a controlled, believable manner --- each voice distinct and providing insightful perspective to the overall plot. I seek to read novels that require me to think as I read - and ultimately teach me something new - about a subject matter, about human nature, or about life. The Swan Thieves hits a home-run on all these points and it is a book that I continue to ponder even a week after I finished reading it.

My favorite part of the book, believe it or not, are the opening paragraphs - not yet the beginning of the book, but a few short paragraphs written prior to chapter one. It introduces to the setting of the story and begins this way:
Outside the village there is a fire ring, blackening the thawing snow. Next to the fire ring is a basket that has sat there for months and is beginning to weather to the color of ash. (page 3)
The paragraph goes on to describe old benches, the smell of the air, the darkness coming down, the time of year and the date, 1895, the slate roofs, the well-worn lanes, and the doors to the houses.

The second paragraph introduces a character:
Only one person is astir in all this desolation - a woman in heavy travelling clothes walking down a lane toward the last huddle of dwellings...The woman in the lane carries herself with dignity, and she isn't wearing the shabby apron and wooden sabots of the village. Her cloak and long skirts stand out against the violet snow. Her hood is edged with fur that hides all but the white curve of her cheek. The hem of her dress has a geometric border of pale blue.....She draws herself together, close, protective, hurrying. Is she leaving the village or hastening toward one of the houses in the last row?

Even the one person watching doesn't know the answer, nor does he care. He has worked most of the afternoon, stroking in the walls of the lanes, positioning the stark trees, measuring the road, waiting for the ten minutes of winter sunset. The woman is an intruder, but he puts her in, too, quickly.....

.....He needs her as she is, needs her moving away from him into the snowy tunnel of his canvas, needs the straight form of her back and heavy skirts with their elegant border, her arm cradling the wrapped object. She is a real woman and she is in a hurry, but now she is also fixed forever. Now she is frozen in haste. She is a real woman and now she is a painting. (pages 3 and 4).
OH MY --- that just gives me chills. Not only is Ms. Kostova's writing so descriptive, eloquent, and exact --- but I feel as though I am inside the mind of an artist - seeing the world the way an artist sees it, and not in my very dull, pragmatic way. And that, bottom line, is why I enjoyed this book so much. I feel it is just as much an education in art history (which I have none) as it is an absorbing tale of intrigue and romance.

The only difficulty I had with this novel was sometimes I found myself confused when the author would flashback to the 1800s. This portion of the story was told in epistolary form, and at times I felt that the letters were somewhat intrusive to the primary story line. I had to quickly adjust to a new set of characters and circumstances, and my ole brain isn't quite as sharp as it used to be. This is only a minor detail, however, and did not adversely my overall love for the novel.

I have so many examples of wonderful writing style and beautiful artistic descriptions, but at the risk of boring the reader, I will just say that I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to read such a beautiful story written in such an extraordinary way.

Let me close by showing an interview of the author at BEA 2009. I received an email from Borders the day the book was released, and this video clip was embedded in that email. Enjoy!


  1. great review! I have heard great things about this book although some that read her 1st book seemed disappointed by this one. I haven't read either so I wouldn't have that issues :)

  2. I loved what you wrote here Molly - can't wait to get started on this one.

  3. You hit the nail on the head when you said that through Kostova's writing, you are inside her mind. I felt the exact same way about The Historian (which you need to read now!). That was a longish book, but I did not want it to end. I just received The Swan Thieves TODAY on audio. I cannot wait!

  4. I have this one on my wanna read list. :) So glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I'm glad you included the quotes. Now I understand why you have taken your time to enjoy this book. I got shivers reading those paragraphs as well. Now I'm going to put my name on the list at the library. Thanks for the great review.

  6. That first paragraph from the book was wonderful. I love the style of writing. I wouldn't mind the letters in it as well, as I love this style of writing. I will read The Historian first and then try and get this one. Fantastic review.

  7. I can totally relate on having difficulty with certain books in regard to reviews. Sometimes I sit down and it seems as if the review is already written in my head and I can't type fast enough. Other times, I really struggle to put my feelings about the book into words.

  8. I thought I wanted this book, and now I have read your review I know I do. Thank you for picking out such wonderful quotes.

  9. I thought this book was wonderful too! I actually got to talk to Elizabeth Kostova about it and she is fantastic!

  10. Wow, that sounds really full on. It is useful to have the quotes to share what you mean. It sounds like the kind of book that would really pull you in.

    I totally know what you mean about some books being easy to review and others more difficult.

    I had a really strange reaction to Wicked by Gregory Maguire. It totally freaked me out. I had so much trouble reviewing it, and now when i look back at the review, I realise how poorly it captures what I wanted to say.

    here's the review if you are interested

  11. I certainly understand about struggling with a book review. It can be easy to overthink it and try to get everything in your head out on the page. Sometimes, sharing quotes is the best way --- to show rather than to try and tell.

    I think you did a fine job!

  12. I read The Historian and really liked the writing style. Can't wait to get to this one!

  13. I loved the Historian, but I haven't found time for this one yet. I will, I will.

  14. Hi Molly~ I loved your review! I was so disappointed to read the rather negative review in The Wall Street Journal (and some others also, actually) that it was great to find a like-minded reader! I enjoyed the book very much and found it to be a page-turner in the character development sense (As you said, action isn't always the key.). I posted my review of The Swan Thieves last night and would like for you to take a look if you get a chance, and let me know your thoughts. Thanks! And thanks for posting the video as well! Best, Margaret @ www.whattheowltoldme.blogspot.com

  15. I loved this one and it stayed with me for days afterward too. I enjoying your thoughts on Kostova's writing. I can't get enough myself. Say, you have good taste in novels.:)


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