The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

February 14, 2010

I’ve been reading this book off-and-on ever since it was realized last month, but I’ve only been able to sit down and devote a chunk of time to it recently, once I finished with obligatory reading for book clubs and the like. It’s unusual for me to be so excited about a newly released book that I will pre-order it. This, however, was one of the exceptions. I loved Kostova’s first book, The Historian, so much that I could not wait to get started on her newest book. I wish I could say that The Swan Thieves was a fantastic second novel that was just as exciting and beautiful and the first. Unfortunately, it certainly was not. The Swan Thieves is a good book–the characters are interesting and the story is intriguing. But overall, this novel lacked many of things that made The Historian excellent. Although it focused on some of the main topics–history, foreign locales, art in some form–none of these three things were done very well.

The Swan Thieves weaves together the story of a modern-day psychiatrist and patient with the story of a French female painter in the late 1800s. I love the turn of the 19th century, but Kostova doesn’t bring that time period alive for the reader. In fact, that historic period could have almost been set in any time in the past, that’s how vague the setting was. Except for name-dropping some early Impressionists, most of the things could have occurred 100 years earlier. This is such a dramatic difference from how the past was really brought to life in her descriptions of Vlad the Impaler in Kostova’s first work. I was also disappointed that the descriptions of France, especially the beautiful parts of France known for great painting scenes, were rarely described with much detail. While reading The Historian, I felt like I was traveling to all of those foreign countries for the first time. How I longed to visit the Eastern European cities and to see the Danube. (In fact, I know a couple who were inspired to do just that after reading the book!) However, when she describes both modern Paris and historic France, Kostova doesn’t inspire any wanderlust.

The most significant difference between the two novels, of course, is that The Swan Thieves is focused on painting. SO MUCH PAINTING. It doesn’t stop. Every single character in this novel is a painter: the psychiatrist, the patient, the patient’s ex-wife, the patient’s girlfriend, the historical character we learn about, and the historical character’s uncle. That is, everyone who is ever in the book for more than 3 pages is a painter. It’s really shocking. You almost feel like you’ve stepped into some weird alternate universe where everything revolves around painting. I don’t paint, but I certainly have nothing against the art. I’m actually a pretty big fan. But I can only hear three or four characters talk about the paint under their fingernails or the smell of oils before I go a little crazy. This was actually the only part of the book that really annoyed me. Everything else was fine, just not excellent. But the obsession with painting just became too trite after a while.

This is a fun read, and certainly worth the time. (Don’t be dismayed by the size–it’s not that long at all, the pages just have very few words on them. I think the published wanted the book to seem just like her previous one.) I would recommend waiting for the paperback, though.



  1. I loved The Historian, and I’ve been a bit nervous about this one. But your review convinced me that as long as I don’t go in with super-high expectations, I’ll be fun. So now I’m number 40-something on my library’s hold list. lol

  2. What a great review. I need to get to this book soon –sounds great!

  3. I am going to have to try The Historian again. So many people whose opinions I value have raved about it. Not sure why it didn’t work for me. Not sure The Swan Thieves is the book for me–I know what you mean about the world of a novel getting too narrowly focused on its subject.

    Great review.

  4. You’ve been awarded! Congratulations!

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