Was I the only one underwhelmed with Elizabeth Kostova’s newest, “The Swan Thieves”? Her first book, “The Historian,” intrigued me so I couldn’t wait to dive in to Swan, but … meh. It’s about a somewhat famous painter who attacks a painting in a New York museum and then refuses to talk. His psychiatrist takes on the project of trying to figure out why the artist did that — and we get to tag along. There are various narrators and voices as the doctor digs into the artist’s past, including both the painter’s wife and his girlfriend plus a mysterious woman the artist obsessively painted portraits of. Turns out the mystery woman was an English artist who lived more than 100 years ago. We learn her story in the book through love letters between her and her husband’s much-older uncle, and if Kostova had just stuck with that narrative and lost about half of Swan’s almost-600 pages, she would at least have ended up with something halfway entertaining and satisifyingly dark and Gothic. But, sadly, she didn’t. It’s hard to keep up with who’s saying what, the characters are practically indistinguishable from one another and I kept having to ask myself, “Now, why am I reading this again?” Plodding, slow and tedious are the words that come to mind. But the bottom line is that Kostova never convinced me I cared about any of these people. An artist ripped a painting — so what? He was supposed to be this charismatic always-center-of-attention type of guy who everybody immediately fell in love with despite the fact that he harbored this deep and tragic secret, but I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure there were supposed to be all sorts of subtle sub-texts and multi-layered themes about art and psychiatry and obsessions and love, but I mainly just wanted to get it over with. I know, I know — Kostova is a gifted writer who layers complexities upon complexities and excels at rich detail and historical interweaving. Shrug. If she can’t make me care about her characters, then I am not impressed.
I was also a bit disappointed with “Swan Thieves.” My primary complaint is that I didn’t like Robert Oliver from the beginning. While I do understand his fascination with the painting, at the end of the day I still do not understand WHY he became so obsessed. I read the first half of the book with intense interest but the last half became something of a chore and I found myself reading purely to find out Robert’s motivation (which, of course, I did not learn).
Bingo! I absolutely agree, Carolyn — you said it much better than I did.
Cathy, I have been seeing this author mentioned a lot lately. I will put the her first book on my list!