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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves

I absolutely loved Kostova's first novel, The Historian, a modern take on vampires (specifically Dracula) that tells a great mystery while retaining the horror and symbolism of the vampire myth (no dreamboat vamps here), so I was eager to get her second book, The Swan Thieves. It's funny that I read it after re-reading Possession, because they share many similarities. Both involve Victorian artists who are caught between their passion and social constraints, and modern day pairs who feel compelled to solve the mystery of their 19th century counterparts. Both address the tension women face between being creators and being muses (or mothers). And both are told through personal narratives, journals, letters, and so on (a structure Kostova also used in her first book).

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this book as much as The Historian. Some of it, to be fair, is because I simply don't find the subject matter that carries the story -- painting -- as engaging as the Dracula myth, despite the effective way Kostova described the sensations of painting. But the real problem was that I could not get myself to care about the characters she created. The story centers around a painter, Robert, who tries to vandalize a work of art in a museum, and refuses to say why. He is the stereotypical tortured artist, self-centered and almost completely blind to the suffering and sacrifices of people around him, and yet everyone who meets him falls under his spell. Because this is a book we cannot see his art, which is supposed to be brilliant and moving, and because he refuses to tell his story we never get a chance to really understand him. As a result, I felt little interest in Robert, and I could not understand why the other characters were so drawn to him (surely someone, somewhere, would get as impatient with him as I would?). Robert does suffer from a mental disorder, but Kostova keeps that diagnosis a secret from us, and never makes clear how much of his personality is attributable to that, how much to his natural temperament, and how much to the fact that everyone lets him get away with bad behavior.

Moreover, the book relies heavily on the reminisces of the psychiatrist trying to help Robert, Robert's ex-wife, and Robert's ex-girlfriend. These passages are overwritten, almost precious, and far too perfect to be believable as memories. The result was a certain sameness despite the fact they they were supposed to be very different characters. (This occasionally happened in The Historian, too, but I enjoyed the story too much to care.) Add to that the fact that throughout the book I was two steps ahead of the protagonists in figuring out the central mystery, and you have a disappointing book. A sophomore slump, I guess. I'll be interested to see what Kostova writes next.

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