Sunday, January 22, 2012

Elizabeth Kostova: The Swan Thieves

I've read this book about two weeks ago and until now couldn't bring myself to sit down and write about it. I'll admit that I was so frustrated about it that I went and checked if The New York Times said anything (bad) about it. If anyone, they'd have the guts. Better yet, I discovered that apart from mentioning it, they never dissected it. Given they've not been too kind to The Historian (which I have not read) it's no surprise there.
I don't know about the people who claim this book "flew by in an instant". In my humbled opinion, Ms Kostova beats around the bush. That's what she's particularly good at. Now, don't misunderstand, the story has its potential and it is artfully written, she is clearly skillful with words. But that does not a good writer make. She is terrible with plots. Horrible with characters. Infuriating at endings. Yes, I am now speaking as if I've read more than one of her books when in fact several endings in this one particular book have quite frankly pissed me off.
Without divulging too much, I can just say that yes, the book is about an artist's torment and a psychiatrist's loneliness. Because nothing else but self-obsessive ego-centrism are the reasons that drive Robert's psychiatrist to uncover his secret. Once he does (and if you've read one or two crime (or whodunnit) novels in your life, you will too, about halfway into the book), everything falls into place. He does not need to explain his indiscretions, he has saved the day, the soul, the life and his own heart. Oh. My. God. Was her editor drunk?
Hm, I realize it seems as if I am furiously yelling but I must admit, I did not *hate* the book. But that is also because I know how artists are, I know of the world they are living in, the kind of psyche they have and things they are thinking about. But not how they are thinking, because no one but them knows that. The writer was at least smart in avoiding that subject. Perhaps that was the interesting part to me. Although even Robert, the artist, who attacks a painting in a gallery with a knife and is therefore hospitalized, is in the end completely inconsistent with himself. Completely.
I was intrigued by the background story of the artist, who was held captive but I was disappointed to find that Kostova was constantly hinting, building up expectations, giving pressure, allowing quickening of pace only to land - at nothing interesting at all. Why did he leave his wife? Who is mysterious Mary? What has changed him? What happened to him in the museum? Even the explanation of how he met the woman he is so obsessed with and can't stop painting is ludicrous.

A painting of Leda with a swan waiting to attack her. (author: François Édouard Picot)

This was quite simply a story that was disappointing. That promised a lot but somehow didn't live up to its potential. And most definitely a story that could have been told in 300 pages. Not every character should have the same poetic expressions, it isn't plausible. Not every character should be painting. Not every character should be quiet and suffering.
Not the money, I want my time back.

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