The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth KostovaThe Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Genre: Historical
Release Date: April 1, 2010
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Source: Bought
Add it: Goodreads
Rating: two-stars

Psychiatrist Andrew Marlow, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism. Kostova's masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from the late 19th century to the late 20th, from young love to last love. THE SWAN THIEVES is a story of obsession, history's losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope.

This terrible, terrible book drags on for over six hundred pages; trying to finish it was an exercise in patience while slowly feeling the will to live fall away. You would think a novel about secret histories would be intriguing but the premise of this novel is presented in such a dry way that any possibility of it being interested is murdered without ceremony before the first fifty pages. It was just so bad.


Okay, so we have our main character, some boring old guy called Marlow, a psychiatrist. He takes an interest in a new patient of his, Robert Oliver, because they’re both painters and this somehow means Oliver is worth more attention than his hospital full of other patients?? Whatever. Anyway, Oliver is quickly observed to have an obsession with painting the same woman over and over and Marlow develops an equally creepy obsession with finding out information about this woman. Marlow then spends the bulk of the novel delving into Oliver’s private life in an attempt to figure out this ~mystery~. Naturally this search leads to beautiful, damaged women who are wonderfully unique despite being indistinguishable from the other; in a completely unprecedented turn of affairs we realise that Oliver was an asshole and instead of being dumped like his ass deserved, these cliche women have spent their time still being fascinated by him. Because duh! He’s a genius! The present day storyline is interspersed with letters from a woman to a loved one, which eventually lead into flashbacks – legit the only part of the book that didn’t make me want to kill myself just for a change in the monotony. This woman, Beatrice, is revealed to have been a gifted artist and one with many secrets, including an affair with an older man.

The characters in this novel are flat and vastly uninteresting. Marlow and Oliver are also super gross, with one being so self-involved that he breaks everything he touches and the other having no real concern over crossing professional boundaries. They are vile tbh. Kate and Mary, our two present day women, are basically the same character; both of them are boring cutouts of idealized femininity and unsurprisingly both are defined by Robert Oliver. Beatrice is the one character who is interesting but her story is far too brief and annoyingly, is told mostly from the perspective of other characters. Each of these characters have their own POVs, although Marlow is the only one we keep returning to. It is frustrating that Beatrice is at the heart of this novel but that we don’t read more about her because Marlow and Oliver dominate.


The story drags – the pace is abysmally slow, the characters monologue at you endlessly, and the sheer amount of pretentious art commentary that can be found on every other page beggars belief. The writing is lazy and repetitive, with the same adjectives being used over and over again. The only redeeming features of this novel tbh are Beatrice and all her too brief POV, and the final twist that reveals the mystery of the novel. It could have been fascinating in the hands of another author. Alas.


Page Count: 607 (according to GR anyway, pretty sure my edition limped on for a good five or so more pages)

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