The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Last week I went to the book store in order to buy Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it so I bought her second novel instead. I know that many of you didn’t like it as much as they liked the author’s first book, but I am still glad that I read it, because despite its flaws, it was still an engaging and satisfying read for me.

Dr Andrew Marlow is a devoted psychiatrist and a hobby painter from Washington, D.C.; therefore, he is very interested in his new patient, renowned artist Robert Oliver, who attacked a canvas in the National Gallery. The psychiatrist is determined to help his patient and to understand Robert’s strange deed, but as he tries to shed some light on the matter he is faced with some difficulties, since Robert refuses to speak. The only existing clues are some antique letters that apparently belong to Robert and a dark-haired lady he paints day after day. Fascinated by his new patient and desperate to solve the mystery revolving around the dark-haired woman, Dr Marlow embarks on a journey that will change his life – he will learn about the women in Robert’s life and about a dark secret dating back to late 19th century France – a secret that still haunts the present.

The Swan Thieves is a suspenseful story of passion, love, obsession and impressionist art. However, it’s hard to categorize the book since it contains elements of different genres. The Swan Thieves is a blend of historical fiction and detective fiction, but it also has romance elements in it, so it’s difficult to say what genre it belongs to. What I can say for sure is that the novel is without doubt an intriguing read, allowing us a glimpse into the life of a confused genius – with every page with learn more and more about Robert Oliver, but not through his own words or thoughts (he barely speaks in the novel); we learn about him through others, namely, the women in his life. And that was very interesting and fascinating – at least that’s what I thought. I liked the fact that there were different narrators and each had his/her own story to tell and I was glad that Elizabeth Kostova managed to narrate these different stories without making it confusing or boring for the reader. I also liked how the author used the epistolary form in between in order to tell a heartbreaking story at the heart of French Impressionism, a story that is somehow related to Robert (I can’t say more about it or I’ll spoil everything).

Now let’s get to the things I didn’t like – Robert’s character, for example, but I suppose it was the author’s intention to make him unlikable. If you read about him and what others will say about him you will not be able to sympathize with him at all as you will find him selfish and overweening. He is a man who doesn’t care about anyone or anything except his art and his dark-haired beauty. He treats his family with indifference and doesn’t care about the needs of others as he is too absorbed in his art and too concerned with himself. These are the main reasons why I disliked Robert and there are many more, but again, I can’t say more because I’ll ruin the story for you.  However, I liked hearing about Robert and getting to know him, as I loved how the women in his life revealed his true character. The female characters were my favorites and I really sympathized with them from the beginning and I felt that I understood them completely.

Now to Dr Marlow – I really can’t say that I cared much about him because I felt that I didn’t get to know him at all. I found that he wasn’t fully developed as a character, but maybe it’s just my opinion. Another thing that I didn’t like about the novel was the fact that it was too long. Now don’t get me wrong – I usually love long books but I sometimes felt that The Swan Thieves was just dragging on and on and I think the author could have come straight to the point. But maybe it was just the author’s way to build up suspense.

On the whole I have to say that The Swan Thieves was still a great novel for me and I would give it four stars out of five. I enjoyed the story very much, especially the women’s narrations, the historical part (the moving love story dating back to late 19th century France), the mystery elements and of course the art part.

I can’t wait to read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. In fact, I already ordered it from Amazon and I expect it to be even better than The Swan Thieves. I want more of Kostova’s writing and narrative skills because I was very impressed by her writing style and found it wonderful; as I mentioned above, I especially liked the use of different points of view and the use of the epistolary form and I hope that The Historian will feature these elements too.

What about you? Have you read Kostova’s novels? If so, did you like them?

Other reviews:


You’ve Gotta Read This

(If you have reviewed this book please let me know so I can add your link to the list.)



14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sandy
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 12:31:08

    I agree with you…it was a good book, full of information about art that I knew nothing about. But I didn’t like the characters much. I so loved The Historian, so this was a little bit of a letdown but I’m glad I read it. You will love The Historian I think!


    • Andreea
      Dec 07, 2010 @ 09:27:59

      Yes, I think I will love The Historian. Well, the characters weren’t all likable but like you said, it was still a great book.


  2. bermudaonion
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 13:32:00

    I really liked this book, too, and I’ve heard The Historian is even better. Thanks for linking to my review.


  3. vivienne
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 14:13:14

    The Historian seemed to have a lot of different genres in it too, that is obviously a key factor of her style. I do have this one and hope to read it soon.


  4. Nymeth
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 16:23:04

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this despite its flaws, Andreea! In a way, I think it’s good that you started with what everyone seems to agree is her weakest novel… no expectations going in that way! I hope you enjoy The Historian – I found it very riveting, especially considering how long it is.


  5. Darlene
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 16:51:25

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one Andreea. I’ve heard such mixed reviews on it. I have The Historian on my shelf somewhere – I hope to read it one day. I have The Swan Thieves on audio but haven’t gotten back to it. I was enjoying it though when I was listening to it so I really should finish it up.


  6. Melody
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 23:43:58

    I’ve The Historian and this book in my pile; I’m just waiting for the right moment to dive in! I’m glad you enjoyed it, Andreea! 🙂


  7. Andreea
    Dec 07, 2010 @ 09:31:41

    Darlene: Yes, you should finish it because I think it’s worth it in the end as you will see the mystery solved.

    Melody: I hope you’ll read The Historian soon and I hope you’ll like it!


  8. Stephanie
    Dec 09, 2010 @ 16:49:57

    I don’t think I liked The Historian quite as much as everyone else seemed to, but it was still a worthwhile read. I own The Swan Thieves, so I am excited to read it.


  9. Kathleen
    Dec 11, 2010 @ 00:59:13

    It is so nice to have you back Andreea! I have not read any of Kostova’s books. I have The Historian but still haven’t read it. I think I will read it first since as you say it got the more positive reviews. But I also will plan to read The Swan Thieves.


  10. Alice Teh
    Dec 15, 2010 @ 23:55:59

    Hi Andreea, I haven’t read this or The Historian, but I do have the latter. Since I’m not signing up for any challenges next year, I hope to tackle it.


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