Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

I began this book feeling sure I was in good hands. I haven't read Kostova's first book, "The Historian", but I've heard the glowing reviews, so I was hoping that "The Swan Thieves" would be a treat. In fact, as I tucked into the first few CDs of the audiotape of this book, I was happy to find I was very much into the story. I'm not usually a big fan of genre writing in the first place, especially of historical fiction -- am I the only person out there who hated "The DaVinci Code"? -- but this book had such a compelling start I thought I might be converted. The book's beginning had such great architecture that I got the same supported, "in good hands" kind of feeling that I get when I sit on my red couch -- that I am on a solidly constructed structure -- as opposed to the feeling I get sitting on my green couch -- which is the fear that I might actually end up on the floor. But the honeymoon didn't last long. The story disappointed and I was not converted to the legions of genre lovers. Double whammy.

"The Swan Thieves" begins with Dr. Marlow, a psychiatrist, as he accepts painter Robert Oliver as a patient. Oliver has been arrested in a museum after trying to damage a painting with a knife. Now he is depressed, obsessed, and mute. I had flashbacks of the movie "Ordinary People" as Dr. Marlow begins his quest to find the key that will unlock Oliver's mind.

And then things quickly fall apart. First complaint: Kosova's characters do implausible things to move the story along. The breath-catching suspense the author crafted so well at the very beginning of the book fell apart because the story became unbelievable. For instance, Dr. Marlow's character is a professional, middle-aged man, never married, but not gay. Still he is well-adjusted, confident, and caring. Has any of us ever come across a man like this? I know this is fiction, but it has to seem real! Personally, I have never come across a never-married, straight, middle-aged man who does not have the word "Issues" lit up on his forehead! And then there is the matter of how Marlow struggles with his interest in helping Robert Oliver. Marlow repeatedly takes liberties with patient confidentiality, going to extraordinary lengths to interview the people in Oliver's life. And then - Spoiler Alert! - he beds and weds Oliver's ex-lover. Come on! Second complaint: The parts of the story that take place in France in the 1800s were so incredibly boring I often realized a passage had ended and I had no idea what had happened - nor did I care. Third complaint: TOO LONG! Come on, Elizabeth. Don't you think it's a little self indulgent to write a tome that tops out at over 500 pages? I listened to the book on tape, and there were 17 CDs in the case! This is not a big-sweep story, a story that needs the long fingers of detail necessary to dip into myriad far-reaching topics. Sometimes, less really is more. In fact, although the descriptions and exposition that filled the text were well written, so much of it riffed on the same topics, all written with the same sensibility, that I became dreadfully bored by the whole thing.

More interesting to me was that Anne Heche was one of the readers on the audiotape, which also featured Treat Williams. Heche's life, way more far fetched than anything within the unbelievable pages of "The Swan Thieves", is completely believable. Why? This is what I think: Anne's cringingly honest story is crazy all the way through, from beginning to end; that she's "crazy", whatever that means, is the premise of her memoir. If she didn't act out in crazy ways her story would lose its credibility! Every story needs its characters to do crazy things. That brings the conflict, the tension, the drama. It's what makes us want to turn the page. But when characters aren't developed in a way that makes us believe they might actually do the crazy things they do to move along the plot, then it's time to call it a day. Stay tuned for a review of Heche's memoir, "Call Me Crazy", which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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