Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Swan Thieves, or a disappointment

One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons featured Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob and the voice of the guy who played Niles on Frazier as brothers. The Niles guy gives Sideshow Bob a job building a dam. When he takes Bob up to see it, Bob says something like "All these millions of gallons of rushing water make me wonder why the hell I should care."

That's how I felt about the new Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves. Kostova had a hell of a debut with The Historian, and it's almost as if some editor told her, 'Do whatever you want with this one.'

I'm not one to bitch about the length of a book. I've read 600-page books that were so absorbing I finished them in two days (and no, I'm not just thinking Harry Potter here). This was not one of them. This book could have been about half the length. In fact, it would have been well-served to be half the length.

The book is about a painter who attacked a painting in the National Gallery. Before he lapses into utter silence, he tells his psychiatrist (the narrator) that he did it 'for her,' and that the narrator can speak with anyone he wishes. So the narrator does just that, talking with his ex-wife, his ex-mistress, his former colleagues at the college where he used to teach. It turns out that the painter has become obsessed with a female French impressionist painter. You get her story in dribs and drabs, from a one-sided packet of letters.

I didn't find either of the two parallel stories terribly interesting. I think there was so much detail that it bogged down. A phrase from my collegiate women's studies classes kept coming back to me: 'The Male Gaze.' The book's full of it. Obviously full of it. This is not just the male gaze, this is the male, stopped in his tracks in the middle of a street while people flow around him, staring openmouthed at some woman who's just trying to mind her own business. The women in the book even turn it on themselves on occasion: the painter's girlfriend, describing how she liked to dress post-college in beat-up clothes with expensive fancy underwear, says "I loved myself this way, slim, swelling roundness...I was my own treasure."

FACEPALM! Seriously, does that sound like any woman you've ever met in your entire life that wasn't being paid by Victoria's Secret or Playboy? Ugh. That awful passage comes at about the midway mark, and that was when the scales truly fell off my eyes. I was NOT enjoying this...but maybe it would get better? And her last one had been so good? And really, it was almost over?

The pace picked up a bit towards the end, but really, it didn't get much better. I was so disappointed in this one. Kostova's an awesome writer, despite this one being so dull. It's got many lovely vivid passages, many living characters, but they don't wind up doing anything. The events of the past are so tepid it's hard to imagine them possessing anyone and driving them insane. It took me two weeks to get through this one. I wish I'd spent them on a different book. Or, rather, I wish that THIS BOOK had been better. I'm not giving up on Kostova. I hope her next book combines the eye for detail with the forward momentum and creative thinking of her first.

1 comment:

kittens not kids said...


That ole male gaze sure gets a lot of mileage. (nerdy critical footnote: the Gaze stuff comes from an essay by film theorist Laura Mulvey called something like Cinema and Visual Pleasure. the best thing, in my opinion, is that she talks about "fetishistic scopophilia," which I think actually comes from Freud, but is awfully fun to say out loud. it sounds good, and also sounds pretentious as heck. Fetishistic scopophilia!!!)

I've wondered about that book, since I know how much you liked the Historian. But this sounds like crap.