The Swan Thieves
Written by Elizabeth Kostova
Review by Jarad Johnson
This book is what I refer to as a leisurely read. It feels slow, methodical and relaxing. This story isn’t about twists, turns or surprises. Timing is all important in my enjoyment of a slow book, I find a need to be in a particular mood for such a book. Fortunately, I picked the right time. I enjoyed the book a great deal. There's something my mother does that she calls "people watching" which is exactly what it sounds like. I do the same thing sometimes, except I invent stories around the people I see. My college is good for that. I will sometimes find a bench to read in and glance every so often and get distracted, wondering what other people are doing. I see a man talking angrily on the phone or someone else running into the English building, papers literally flying behind them. People can be fascinating, from a distance of course. That's what this book felt like to me. I felt as if I were observing someone else's life, with all the eccentricities and all the day to day things that come with that. Now that may not sound particularly interesting, but it’d like sneaking a peek at the characters in their most private moments, just as I fleetingly wish to while “people watching” from my bench. The story shifts between 4 characters, each written in the first person, so you get to see what each of them are thinking. We’ve all had moments where we seem to be hearing our mouths say something while the mind protests, whether good or bad (usually bad, in my experience). If you've read The Goldfinch by Donna Tart or The Secret History by the same author, this book has a similar feel and style.
Even though it's first person, I couldn't help but feel a sense of detachment from the characters. With other books, you feel invested personally in the characters. This felt more like an unbiased observation, and that's in many ways why it was so interesting. It's like looking at a painting. You sit back and observe, unhurried, and discern your own meaning. After all, the book is about an artist, and it’s fitting that reading it feels like contemplating visual art. A psychological point of view also contributes to the observational feel.
The artist in this story was a compelling character. Artists are famous for suffering from mental health issues, and is no exception. The outcome of mental illness can severely strain a family, and we see its devastating affects here. The book also delves into how family members may react. The wife's reaction to learning about the artist’s illness stood out to me because I found it odd. Her first reaction was that she could never see him as the same person anymore, and cannot love him as she did before. Her vilification of mental illness gave me an entirely different sense of that character. The book allows us to observe the interactions and intricacies of relationships and make judgments about them.
Also, if one message stood out to me from the book, it was this: marriage must work for both people, not just one. Of course, marriage involves compromise, but when it comes to big things like having children or moving into the suburbs (as was the case here) that can’t be just one persons decision. I personally don't want children and never have and it’s probably a terrible mistake to force that on someone.
I felt as though this novel had neither good or bad characters. Each was a little bit of both, and that made it a very human novel. Even though we like things to be clear cut, defined as good and evil, we all live in shades of grey. Things are not always clearly defined.
Overall, I think the author has written what is essentially an exploration of the human condition (pretentious, I know, but this is art were talking about people). Fascinating characters and subplots weave together to create a story that is very entertaining. If you like to eavesdrop on other peoples conversations, I think you'll enjoy this book.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!