Book Review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves Review

The Swan Thieves Review

“In the end, I always act from the heart, even if I also value reason and tradition. I wish I could explain why, but I don’t know.” – Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves

started reading this book on December 28, 2011 and finished January 15, 2012. It took me a while because I got really busy with work. 😦

What attracted me to this book is that it appears to be a historical art fiction with a hint of mystery. Something that first made me think of The Girl With Pearl Earrings. I am a fan of books with references on history and especially the arts, being a frustrated artist myself. I am not an artist, I can not even draw a good stick figure. But I do know how to appreciate. 🙂

Moving on, here’s what I liked about the book:
  • Very appealing. Robert Marlowe acquires the renowned painter Robert Oliver as his patient when he tried to stab a painting. Marlowe then travels around meeting people who might be able to shed some light on the reasons behind Oliver’s breakdown. The book mainly comprises of the memories and insights of these people told in the voice of that particular individual–some sort of first person interludes. This appeals to me so much. Each chapter tells me more about the characters and the gradual revelation, exploration, and turn of developments makes this reading worthwhile.
  • Different points of view. Hearing from the individual’s point of view is a refreshing take because it feels like they are honestly and actually telling you their story face to face. The author was able to blend the different points of view in past and present tense to create an elaborate whole piece by piece.
  • Vivid and fascinating descriptions. All events and characters are described so vividly, it’s as if they were really alive and not just fictional. Even the paintings are described in such a way that you would think the writer actually saw what she’s been describing. Her words put a very stunning visual in my mind.
  • Makes me want to be a painter. The way she writes would definitely make you feel this way. I actually browsed through paintings especially the ones that she mentioned in the book that actually exist just to see with my owns eyes the power of her compelling descriptions. Her descriptions of the paintings are really dramatic and realistic.
And here’s what I did not like:
  • It is such a slow read, kind of dragging at times. If you are used to reading fast-paced, action-driven novels, this one is an opposite. The story line develops gradually so it takes a while to see some action. Plus, the book is almost 600 pages long so it takes a while to finish.
  • Very short chapters. I like short chapters the way James Patterson writes it. But when it comes to historical mysteries, I prefer long ones. Plus, I noticed that some of the chapters just stop for no reason at all. So it is kind of annoying.
  • Repetitive and wrong descriptions. I do not need to be told that over and over that Robert Marlowe is a gifted psychiatrist who can “make a stone talk.” Plus, she uses the word “transparent” to describe old people’s hands. You can’t see through their skin. Translucent would have been a better word.
  • The characters all sound alike. It’s a good thing that she puts the name of each character in the chapter headings. Otherwise, I would only have the locations and salutations in letters to differentiate each character. I believe that Kostova should have made each character more distinct in their voices.
  • The disappointing ending. I thought there would be more to the story, but there wasn’t. What kept me reading for a long time just made me feel disappointed after. There wasn’t any real big mystery. At the end I just felt like, “So that’s all there is to it?” Why would the painter go all quiet just because a woman from the past was blackmailed? Then why, after Marlowe discovers the mystery, did Oliver suddenly speak and say “Thank you” and get miraculously cured?
Overall, I’m going to rate this book a 4 out of 5. Despite its flaws, I still like it. I would recommend this to those interested in art, history, and mystery.

Have you read any of her books? Let me know what you think! 🙂


*Elizabeth Johnson Kostova is an American author. She is a graduate of Yale University and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress. Her first novel, The Historian, was published in 2005, and it has become a best-seller.

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