short thought: "the swan thieves"

so a short thought this morning, folks, on elizabeth kostova’s new novel, the swan thieves.

the reason for this shortness? well, partially it’s because i have to go to work shortly, but mostly it’s because i didn’t finish the book. i’m breaking my own self-imposed sort of rule here to talk about a book i didn’t even bother to finish. most of the time, if i write something about a book, movie, or series, i haven’t finished it’s because i think it’s completely awesome and as many other people should know about it as possible.

i wish this was the case with the swan thieves but it’s not.

i really enjoyed kostova’s debut novel, the historian. it had problems of pacing and characterization but, for a first novel produced out of a workshop, i thought it was pretty damn good. a few of the other little glitches i noticed — such as the strange adolescent/adult/adolescent/pre-adolescent slalom of the main character — can be explained by the fact that one of my friends who attended a talk on YA literature told me that the novel had originally been purchased as YA. the publishers then realised they would have a much wider market if they bumped it up to the adult fiction lists, but the main character, having originally been written to appeal to a pre-teen/teen audience, needed bumping up, too. thus her odd bouncing around between states of mind.

fine, i’ll buy that. it mostly worked anyway, and didn’t distract too badly from the rest of what was going on. it wasn’t exactly a fast-moving book by anyone’s standards, but it was worth the ride 90% of the time.

the swan thieves is equally slow-moving, equally detailed, equally determined to leave no stone unturned in terms of character or plot description. in this case, the story is much simpler than that of the historian: a painter, robert oliver (if i remember rightly) has been arrested and institutionalized after trying to attack a painting in the national gallery in washington. his psychotherapist, one of the narrators of the story, is trying to figure out why. tah-dah — there you have it, folks. the entire driving force of a brick-thick novel.

and that’s fine — it might even work out — if every character didn’t feel like a cookie cutter of every. other. character. seriously. i think kostova developed one man and one woman and then just changed hair color, age, and eye color. and it got really really boring to have every woman described in terms of her immediate sexual attractiveness to the narrative character. since in his original self-introduction he mentions that he starts out the story single but not particularly heartbroken about this and that while now he has a wife and is quite happy about this, romantic heartbreak hasn’t been a huge portion of his life, it felt particularly awkward to have him summing up every woman in the story in terms of waist firmness and breast size.

to then have the narrators switch — which was fine; i expected that — and the new voice of a younger woman was interesting to listen to right up until the point when she started evaluating all the men in the book in precisely the same way the original, male narrator had! i suppose this is a very mild example of equal opportunity sexism, but between that and the fact that the pace of the novel was tooth-achingly slow without delivering any of the informational payoff of the historian, i decided life was too short and, to quote maggie cutler in the man who came to dinner, “i put it down right there.”