The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I had very, very high hopes for The Swan Thieves because I read Kostova’s previous (debut) work, The Historian and I LOVED it. The Historian was everything a bookworm (or this bookworm) ever wanted in a novel–epic history and panoramic travel through exotic locales, dusty old libraries full of foreign books, dark mystery, heartbreaking romance, and just a little bit of spine-tingling horror. As well, the way Kostova put together a story within a story within a story was amazing. The Historian unfolded through narrative, letters, books within books, and it felt like those Russian dolls that fit so neatly one inside another.

Therefore I was definitely excited for Kostova’s next book, and when I began The Swan Thieves it seemed to be in a similar format as The Historian. We begin with the point-of-view of Dr. Marlowe, a psychiatrist treating a tortured-artist type named Robert Oliver. Robert was arrested for attacking a painting with a knife at the National Gallery in D.C., and since then has refused to talk or make any sort of communication with people around him, including Dr. Marlowe. Marlowe finds himself more intrigued with this man than any other patient he has encountered, partly because he is a bit of a painter himself, and partly because of a stack of old, faded letters written in French that Robert reads through over and over again obsessively. Marlowe begins to unravel Robert’s history through the stories of several women who have loved and lost Robert throughout the years, and by translating and reading these mysterious letters Robert is so attached to.

The letters reveal themselves to be correspondence between a young woman in 1800s France and her uncle. Both are talented, amateur painters and their letters begin with normal family updates and news of visits, and eventually transcend into something deeper and more forbidden.

As you read The Swan Thieves, you’re supposed to understand that there is some sort of connection between the old French letters and Robert’s obsession with this one mysterious dark-haired woman that he keeps painting over and over again.

But honestly? I got bored. This book is 500+ pages long and I felt that SO much of it was unnecessary. I’m not one to be turned away from long books (The Historian was huge, and a great read) in fact it’s usually great because that means there’s more of a good story to savor. But there was so much bleah in The Swan Thieves, especially with the intersecting narratives from Robert’s ex-wife Kate and his ex-mistress. I understand that this is Kostova’s style but there was so much that did nothing to advance the plot or make any character more believable. In fact none of the characters felt alive at all–they were all one big mass of miserable artist types. I might be biased here because while I do appreciate art, I do not appreciate starving miserable artist types, especially 500+ pages about the same kind of artist.

The unraveling of the mystery would have good, had I been at all excited for it. We find out who the French woman is, who Robert is painting obsessively, why he paints her obsessively, why he attacked the painting, and etc. etc. It was a fairly good twist, but I was just so bored by it by the end.

Sadly I was disappointed by Kostova’s The Swan Thieves. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations because I enjoyed The Historian so much.

Where did I get this book? My local public library!
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance.

Author/Book Website:


On Books

The good book news first:

Book From Heaven (Tian Shu) is an artistic installment by Chinese artist Xu Bing four years in the making.

From idlethink

Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.

They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.

More here.

The bad book news next:

If you haven’t already heard: an archivist’s and historian’s nightmare has transpired in the city of Cologne.

A treasure trove of 65,000 original documents dating from the year 922, including a clutch of Karl Marx manuscripts, letters by Hegel, the personal papers of West Germany’s first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and an unbroken series of Cologne’s carefully preserved town council meetings dating back to 1376, was destroyed in minutes when the archive building collapsed some days ago.

…Archives are destroyed quickly in war and conquering: when a new power seeks an erasure of the old, in the upheaval of battle and destruction, in bombings and air raids. Or else they are destroyed slowly by time: crumbling, fading, disintegrating — the gradual, inevitable entropy of all living things, including memory. But in Cologne, and in other tragedies of this sort, so much vanished in so little time, and in such an absurd, absurdly preventable manner (some think that the Cologne building, state-of-the-art and less than 40 years old, collapsed only because a train line was being built right underneath it) that my reaction is more one of bewilderment than anything else. A kind of chasm has opened up in German history now, and time will tell how deeply the loss will be felt.

Quoted from. Original article

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He’s embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life – he’s leaving home to build a better future for his family. Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant’s experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can’t communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character’s isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy. (from

Commentary: Beautiful. Tan is both the author and the artist, and what an artist he is. Really amazing drawings and flow throughout the book. It’s a graphic novel without words, so you can’t really describe it in words. 

Highly recommended.