Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Writing a second book that achieves the same level of success of your first, or even exceeds it, is one of the harder things to do in publishing. The task become particularly difficult if your first book was The Historian. In this second effort Ms. Kostova departs from the supernatural, and leaves all elements of anything fantastic behind her. The topic embraced is perhaps slightly less than that of Dracula in universal appeal; some may even see it as self-indulgent and elitist: art history.

Subject matter aside, the story lacked the intrigue to drive me, as a reader, forward. There are questions raised and rational people do strange things to arouse curiosity, but there is nothing in this world of art history as to truly make me wonder or care about to what's going on. Once I had read far enough into the book and discerned the what the crux of the story was about--a point which came too far into the novel--I asked myself, 'If all involved in this matter fail, what then?' Sadly, I didn't care, such was my attachment to the characters and investment in the story.

The major issue that stymies interest and stunts the novel's development is that of repetition, and it's very obvious in a story where so little actually happens. Robert Oliver, an exceptionally gifted artist, attempts to attack a painting and here the story begins. He is in the psychiatric care of Dr. Andrew Marlow, who is also a gifted artist. The primary story is told by these two men and two women, also artist, who were Robert's previous love interest. Marlow proceeds to take us places and through a good deal of travel and research, unravels Oliver's past as to better assess his current condition. Oliver is the unifying thread among all the characters.

Not only do all the character share an erudite interest in art, but any time anyone of them mentions Oliver they all lapse into character description of mythical proportion; each saying the same thing, in different words, for far too many pages repeated in an all too often cycle. Oliver becomes a larger-than-life 'swords and sorcery' hero armed with a paint brush. This incessant litany of characteristics gets old quickly and never lets up. It was good the first time and alright the second, but the extreme overuse turned a nuance into a nuisance. All the characters also share a love of reading: classic works, contemporary pulp, histories, biographies and books of poetry. Rarely has a more homogeneous group of people been collected into one book.

The story is told from alternating character's perspectives (all but Oliver's) and letters from the late ninetieth century between niece and uncle-in-law. The letters, while initially of no consequence, eventually grow into something interesting and prove to be the backbone of the story. They also give rise to an eye brow raising point of plot convenience that I thought had been previously reserved only for Hollywood.

These letters are crucial to the story's main elements of plot and they are cherished above all other possessions by Oliver. So much so that he travelled great distance, and undertook criminal action to obtain them that he may read them everyday. In the very beginnings of the novel he simply gives the letters away, as though they meant nothing. At the time this occurred, I didn't know enough of the story to see it as odd, but upon finishing the book, considering Oliver's compulsive obsession that has been uncovered, it made no sense at all. Unless of course the letters are to be used by the author to propel events along (no matter how slowly.)

As unbelievable as the previously mention plot development was perhaps it is negligible in comparison Dr. Marlow's position in the novel. Working in a psychiatric ward in Washington D.C. he apparently has no more interesting patient than a mute painter who tried to stab an inanimate object: a point I found very hard to believe. The obsession Marlow displays--in the course of his work and at large personal expense far beyond anything he has previously exercised on a patient--is a bit hard to swallow. He merely 'checks in' on his many other patients in a very cursory way; he is completely taken with Oliver even though he shows no signs beyond antisocial behavior that he is a threat to anyone. Also somewhat questionable is Marlow's professional integrity and his status as a believable character is his ability to fall in love with every female character he meets be they twenty years younger than he, a patient's ex-wife, or a woman from a painting.

Most questionable of all was a very odd story mechanic where people write everything down in letter form even though the story is being told in the email age. Phone calls are rare, even when one would seemingly make more sense than a letter. There is an almost forced feeling of antiquity displayed in the novel . It was as if Kostova wanted to set the primary story a hundred years earlier, but had her hand forced by the time frame of the impressionist movement. Mary, one of Oliver's love interest, can't simply share the events of her life with Marlow, she has to commit them to paper. The letters Marlow obtains from Oliver are in French and a female acquaintance--one Marlow was previously in love with, no surprise--goes to the trouble of translating them and he insist that she not email but again commit them to paper. This mechanic not only hurts in matters of verisimilitude and but gives rise to a new problem.

All of the characters share the same tone of voice. It's not to say the personalities exhibited are bland, only all are cut from the same cloth. They write the same way, they speak in the same way, and they all recall Robert Oliver the same way. There is not a spark of diversity to be found in the entire cast.

This is a book that is perhaps two hundred pages too long and seemed to be given the editorial benefit of the doubt in acknowledgment of Kostova's past sales. The material within the covers is more than strong enough to make a decent story but is so heavily diluted with descriptions of Robert Oliver and anecdotes of no relevance that is hard to stick around long enough to find what's really important. The book shares a very similar structure to The Historian; as if Ms Kostova were filling out a template. To her credit, she choose a phenomenal model to copy. However, certain characters exist to fill similar roles and some were virtually interchangeable from her past book.

Her writing attributes are still in tact and the words on the page are as lovely as ever. The control over the pace of events is as evident here as it was in The Historian. Unfortunately, the complete lack of tension makes The Swan Thieves pedestrian enough to be tedious. My two favorite displays of Ms. Kostova's writing should have been omitted in my mind and only made me regret what could have been with a more focused eye and a small measure of diversity.

No comments: