Friday, November 26, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

When last I was hanging out with Elizabeth Kostova, I was sleeping with my lights on for fear that Vlad Dracula would come in the night and murder me horrifically, yet I was strangely excited to find her latest, The Swan Thieves, on the racks at the bookstore in South Station in Boston. The woman is a hell of a writer.

Kostova returns to her talent for writing incredible atmospheric tension in Swan Thieves. In it, a psychiatrist takes on a non-verbal, mysterious patient after the patient attacks a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The attack is the culmination of a long period of strange behavior, and the psychiatrist - an amateur artist himself - goes to great lengths to solve the puzzle of his client's case. I'm reasonably sure that some of said lengths are completely unethical, but as the book is an exploration of madness and art, I think I can probably let it go. The mystery winds up as a commentary on the nature of creativity and the world of the mind, and it's beautiful work.

My one complaint, which is a holdover from The Historian, is that Kostova has some difficulty with writing from a male perspective. As a friend at work pointed out, her male characters notice things and speak about certain things in a way that feels unnatural to a male character (or at least to a straight male character). In the introductory chapter, I assumed that the narrator was a woman, only to discover in the second that it was a man. This wasn't necessarily because of overt gender typing (i.e. "all sensitive painter/psychiatrists must be women") but rather from the feel of the character's tone and focus of their worldview. It's a little bit hard to describe. Her male characters also describe other men in a way that denotes some form of physical and romantic attraction - I don't profess to know the minds of men, but I'm assuming that most of the straight men of the world (which Kostova's Swan Thieves protagonist certainly is) don't notice the lustrous hair or shining blue eyes of various men they meet, or if they do, it's probably not the first thing they go for. It just makes the read a little jarring, and in this case, it's in the service of a romantic entanglement that lends very little to the narrative.

This is a great book, and I'm glad I found it in paperback - The Historian nearly gave me carpal tunnel. The writing is top notch, and as always, Kostova's research and background are top of the line. You wouldn't think these qualities would be so important to a work of fiction, but the depth and interest that the added work contributes is really quite exceptional. A good one for the holidays!

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