REVIEW: THE SWAN THIEVES
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Elizabeth Kistova: Swan Thieves
– Mar., 2014
A fiction tale about a psychiatrist investigating the life of his new-come patient, a bipolar artist institutionalized after attempting to deface a (fictional) work of art at the National Museum. (I should say I do not know absolutely the artist is bipolar. For some reason Kostova has decided to hide that piece of information from the reader, and I am well past half the book. I say bipolar because I was handed the book being told it was about a bipolar artist.)
What do I think? I find the book remarkably unremarkable. It is not so terribly bad that I can run off paragraph after paragraph about the god-awful writing. But neither is it at all good. The story is about as complex as a line that bends slightly to the right and then straightens back out again -- however much Kostova is trying to be mysterious. But: there is a parallel story occurring a century and a half prior to the main story, so let's say it is as complicated as two lines, one of which bends to the right, and the turns back straight again.
There are places where the writing is terrible. The chapter that concerns the main character's visit to his father, and together to his mother's grave is wretched. Kostova's handling of emotional depth throughout the book is less than stellar. Here it is comically abysmal. There are occasional moments where she makes contentual errors: for example, the phrase "the arch of the sky" refers to how broad the sky looks in the plains, it does not really fit in a mountain setting. Another: poor writing gives the reader the idea that she does not know that the Twin Towers were part of the World Trade Center. (Let's give her the benefit of the doubt and blame it on poor writing.) Finally, and possibly the most damning critique, her writing about art -- especially historical artists and their works -- sounds like something that would come from an undergrad art major.
Will I finish it even with it's flaws? Yes. But I am blowing through it, and I think I needed a dose of mostly mindless drivel. Do I recommend it? No more or less than I recommend any other generic fiction. Read it if you want, but I am sure you could find better.
[Update:] So, the very night after I wrote the above I read twenty more pages and put the book down permanently. What triggered it was having read the one hundredth time Kostova described the artist character, and having that make unignorable what I was having to ignore in order to read the book: it is wholly empty of content. Six hundred page text, easily 450 pages of it could be eliminated under the basic rule: if it doesn't add something, get rid of it. Most of the letters have no real value to the plot, and could be eliminated (except in that then there would be no letters subplot). Most of the chapters from the point of view of Mary could be boiled down to one sentence: "Robert was just so attractive, absolutely dreamy." The Kate chapters set up most of the information, so they would maybe be cut only 50%. The Marlowe chapters are astoundingly empty. There's little reason to believe that they are even being spoken by a psychiatrist. This is probably the most empty text I have ever read.
Oh, I looked in the end to see if there was some plot point that might make me want to read the rest. I looked at maybe 300 words in total, and within it found what would be a major resolution point, and at page 400 there was no presence of the point in the text so far.