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:

Bermudaonion

You’ve Gotta Read This

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

Andreea

Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner

1859: Alexandrie is a hard-working and ambitious farm girl who dreams of becoming a famous and successful ballerina in Paris. But her passion for ballet is not the only reason why the young girl wants to pursue her dream. Alexandrie’s family is very poor and is struggling financially, thus, her mother hopes that as a ballerina, Alexandrie will be able to support her family. However, when the heroine finally joins the renowned Paris Opera Ballet, she is shocked to discover the truth behind the glamorous life of a ballerina. Even though ballerinas enjoy a sophisticated life style, including expensive and exquisite clothing and jewellery, they have to become mistresses of wealthy married men in order to lead such an exclusive life. Thus, Alexandrie perceives that she must pursue this shady path if she wants to support her family financially. But the young ballerina doesn’t want to become part of this tradition of high class prostitution, and decides to concentrate on her dancing. Nevertheless, she soon becomes distracted by the attractive artist Edgar Degas, who wants Alexandrie to model for him. The aspiring ballerina agrees to do so, since she hopes that Degas’s paintings will make her famous. But as Alexandrie is spending more time with the young painter she begins to fall in love with him and she is soon forced to choose between love and her duty towards her family. Will she follow her heart or will she make the choice to become the mistress of a wealthy man in order to help her poor family? As Alexandrie finally comes to a decision, she realizes that there’s nothing more painful in life than the choices of the heart!

Dancing for Degas is a fascinating tale about duty, morals, competition, jealousy and the painful decisions we make in life. Furthermore, it’s a heart-breaking story about love and the consequences that await us if we try to ignore it. Kathryn Wagner’s novel gives us a vibrant glimpse into the eminent Paris Opera Ballet, with its shocking and entrancing behind-the-scenes and the author manages to fully capture the true spirit of the Parisian ballet and art scene, depicting their different and alluring facets. In addition, Dancing for Degas draws an authentic portrait of one of the world’s most famous artists, offering the readers a believable Edgar Degas who is willing to sacrifice everything for his passion.

I really loved everything about this book and I was sad when I finished reading it (this also has to do with the novel’s ending). When I discovered Dancing for Degas last month, I immediately wanted to read it because of the following reasons:

– As a little girl, I also dreamed of becoming a ballerina and today, I am still fascinated by ballet
– I love Paris and I visited the City of Lights a few years ago
– I am interested in Impressionism

Thus, I was eager to read this book because its synopsis piqued my interest and because the novel sounded so promising. And I must say that Dancing for Degas met all my expectations since I was immediately drawn into the world of ballet with its glamorous reputation and its scandalous behind-the-scenes.

I really liked the heroine Alexandrie and I admired her strength and ambition. I felt very sympathetic to her and to her struggles to resist so many temptations and to make life-changing decisions. On the other side, I must admit that I didn’t really like Edgar Degas because he seemed so arrogant and self-centered. While I like his work and appreciate him as an artist, I don’t like his character (of course we cannot really know how he was in real life other than reading letters and other documents about him but I think that Degas was really like Kathryn Wagner portrayed him in this book). I don’t really understand how Alexandrie could have fallen in love with him. However, the person I disliked most in this book was Alexandrie’s mother. I have never read about someone who is so selfish, cold and calculating. The heroine’s mother never thinks about anyone else other than herself and she doesn’t really care about her daughter’s life or happiness. As long as Alexandrie sends her money each month, her mother is content, regardless of how Alexandrie might have procured the money. She doesn’t mind if her daughter becomes a mistress; on the contrary, she pushes Alexandrie in this direction because she knows that her daughter will send her even more money that way. Alexandrie’s mother wants her child to sacrifice her life for the benefit of her family, at all cost. I just couldn’t believe that a mother was capable of doing such a thing, but sadly, I know that there are mothers out there who do the same thing today (we only need to have a look at the film and music industry).

Dancing for Degas is a wonderful historical novel that will appeal to Tracy Chevalier fans and to readers who are interested in art and ballet. The book is also perfect for everyone who loves a heart-warming and complicated love story. I enjoyed reading Kathryn Wagner’s novel and I felt transported to another time and place where I had the chance to catch a glimpse of what was really going on behind the scenes at the Paris Opera Ballet in the late-nineteenth century. Dancing for Degas shows the reader both the beautiful and glamorous side of the ballet and the awful and often disgusting side that comes with being a famous ballerina. Furthermore, Dancing for Degas is a bittersweet and unforgettable love story and that’s why I loved this book so much!

Note: I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of her engaging book!

Here are some of Degas’s ballerina paintings and some of the pictures I took when I visited Paris a few years ago. I hope you like them!

Degas’s Ballerina Paintings: Courtesy of Google Images

Paris 2006: