Friday, January 22, 2010

The Swan Thieves, aka The Time Thieves

I haven't written a blog post for a few months- that's how long it's taken me to finish the last book I was reading. Ok, maybe not that long, but it kind of felt that way.

I just finished reading "The Swan Thieves" by Elizabeth Kostova, whose debut novel, "The Historian" was a runaway bestseller. In fact, "The Historian" was the first debut novel to hit #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. While "The Swan Thieves" will undoubtedly finds its way to this and other bestseller lists, my feeling is that it will quickly find its way off those same lists.

"The Swan Thieves" is primarily the story of two men, Dr. Andrew Marlow and Robert Oliver, as well as love, art and obsession.

Robert Oliver is a brilliant artist who is remanded to psychiatric care after attempting to slash a painting with a pocketknife at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.. Andrew Marlow is the doctor who attempts to treat Oliver, but runs into a major problem- shortly after his commitment to the hospital, Oliver gives Marlow permission to speak with anyone about him, then refuses to speak anymore.

Day after day, Oliver draws and paints pictures of the same beautiful woman whom Marlow is convinced holds the key to helping Oliver. As Marlow tracks down and speaks with Robert's former wife and girlfriend, he becomes nearly as obsessed with the mystery woman in the paintings, causing him to straddle the lines of professional ethics. His search for answers, ostensibly in his patients behalf, lead him to travel up and down the east coast, to Mexico and then to Europe.

"The Swan Thieves" is an impressive story that has alternating chapters with historical elements, discusses art, particularly Impressionism, contains a mystery at its core, and deals with love- love realized, love lost and love that was never meant to be. Having said this, "The Swan Thieves" also contains some near-fatal flaws.

Kostova is a wordsmith who has an love of description, which, much like her character Robert Oliver, who was sidetracked from a bright career by his obsession, her story is often sidetracked by obsessively over-descriptive prose. The story arc is interesting, but could have benefited from an editor unafraid to assert some editorial control, allowing the same story to be told in three to four hundred pages rather than the nearly six-hundred page tome that it is. I often got bored and distracted, having to put the book down, as the story seemed to be progressing to nowhere (while reading the first 200 pages of "The Swan Thieves", I started and finished two other books).

The other problem that continues to stalk Kostova, as it did in "The Historian," is the inability to provide a satisfying ending. The climax of the story comes very late, wrapping up the story in an weak and insubstantial denouement. I already understood why Robert Oliver attacked the painting by about page 300 and all the final pages did was confirm what I already knew. As in "The Historian," the story overpowers and supplants the ending, making the book worth the read even with a disappointing ending.

Just be warned, a casual read this is not. "A" for effort, "B" for the story, but a "D" for the long-winded telling.