Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waving the White Swan

'The Swan Thieves'
By Elizabeth Kostova

Format: Audio CD
Published: Hachette Audio; Jan. 2010

Synopsis: Like "The Historian," the new novel ranges across a variety of richly described international locales, both antique and modern. There is once again an assortment of narratives, all of which converge to solve a central mystery. Kostova again pays punctilious attention to the details of her characters' working lives (archival scholarship in the first book, painting in the second). And although the two novels' subjects are worlds apart, there is a shared romantic premise, in which the past is forever imposing itself onto the present, the dead onto the living. Kostova's new book, set partly in Washington, tells a rather simple story, and its characters, although they sometimes insist otherwise, don't change radically over time. (All are painters, and they're not much different, in interest or in outlook, from one another.) The troubled and troubling figure around which the novel expands is Robert Oliver, a charismatic and hugely talented contemporary American painter in his early 40s with a style reminiscent of the impressionists. Tall and powerfully built, with the near-mythic "great wingspan" of an archangel or a Greek god, Robert suffers from the all-too-human miseries of artistic obsession. He has recently been arrested for trying to attack a painting called "Leda" in the 19th-century collection at the National Gallery of Art, and lands in a psychiatric facility called Goldengrove in Rockville. There he's assigned to a doctor named Andrew Marlow, himself a painter who, until now, has regarded his demanding psychiatric practice as merely his day job. After a brief interview with Marlow, Robert refuses to speak for the 11 months he remains at Goldengrove, expressing himself only by compulsively sketching and painting the same mysterious figure: a beautiful young woman in period Victorian clothing. Baffled and fascinated, Marlow embarks on a not-entirely professional quest to understand the origins of Robert's fixation, traveling to North Carolina, New York and as far as France and Mexico to interview the people who might shed light on the painter's silent mania. Kostova alternates chapters featuring Marlow's first-person voice with those of several others -- sometimes, as in "The Historian," in the quaint, slightly fussy form of confessional letters. These perspectives include those of Robert's ex-wife (a former painter) and an art-school student with whom he became involved for a time. Interspersed among the modern voices are those of a young woman in late-1870s Paris who is an impressionist painter named BĂ©atrice de Clerval, along with her elderly uncle, yet another painter. In addition to moving the story along, all these characters have lots of interesting, intelligent things to say about the actual sensation that accompanies the work of painting -- the scratch of sketch, the glop of color, the smell of linseed. 

My Take:  Was that synopsis long enough for you? Are you still with me? Ok let's cut to the chase here. Sometimes a problem with a book is about me, not the book. This might be the case. Might. The book was over 600 pages, I won the audio version. I was excited about this because a. I've never listened to an audio book before and b. I freaking loved 'The Historian'. Things did not go as planned, folks. 

Let's back up here and talk a little about my lifestyle. I am guessing that people who listen to lots of audio books generally have long commutes to work in a car? Is this correct? If not please throw some other options out. (I loved all of the discussions last week about audio books last week, fyi, that's why I waited to post this one!)

At 17 cd's I was trying every idea out there under the sun in which to listen to this book because I don't commute to work in a car. I ride to work on a subway... for 10 minutes. At 17 cd's, roughly calculating, uhm this could have taken me 10 years to finish so I had to come up with a different game plan. I listened to it while working out at the gym. The book is about a man named Robert Oliver who needs psychiatric care for cutting up a painting about a swan. The doctor visits his wife. There's flashbacks to France in the 1800s. It's all told in monotone voices. I've never worked out so slow in my life. I tried listening to it in the car when I would run errands. That worked and I would get through one track. I tried listening to it while cleaning the house with my boyfriend. He's supposed to help, he'd be napping.

Bottom line: I think I should have read the darn book. If I would have, I could have skipped to parts that were interesting (not that I would ever do that! I am just saying it's slow! Stop shaking your finger at me!). Has anyone else listened to the audio - how long did it take you?

Conversely - is there a snappy audio I should listen to?

Naturally, other people have different opinions! For alternative views on this book, please click here:
Linus's Blanket
Bookfoolery and Babble
The Book Lady's Blog
S. Krishna's Books

(This audio was a prize)


  1. Sorry this didn't work for you in audio - I loved the print version. Maybe you should try a YA audio, like Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.

  2. Audio books are hit/miss with me (and I generally listen to them while I am at work instead of music). I have to love the narrator (aka the reason I mostly listen to non-fiction read by the author-they know their work). There are occasional fiction books that are great on Audio but I do the "listen before buying" method to see if I am going to like the reader. Also, I had the same problem with The Passage (I got it on audio),that you had with this one. It might be length--I think the longer books are probably just better read on paper. That being said I am so turned off by The Passage now it will be awhile till I pick it up again (I don't blame the book--just me). Also, I think audio is an acquired taste and until you listen to a really good one---you aren't ever going to like them. I am listening to The Help right now (out of my normal genre) and it is really good but it is read by 4 different people, which really helps :)

    WOW I rambled LOL

  3. I avoid audio books like the plague!!! They just don't keep my attention. Plus, I haven't heard many good things about this book anyway...print or otherwise.
    Oh, and I echo Bermuda -- I READ Lizzie and LOVED it.

  4. I don't usually check out audio books, but this sure does look interesting. Still, thanks for the honest review!

  5. I have the audio, but also the book (both unread); thanks for the heads up!!

  6. Blimey, 17 CDs is a lot to get through! I've only listened to one or two audiobooks, but they were nowhere near that long.

  7. This is one of the library books I recently came home with... I was feeling optimistic... not sure I'm even going to get close to it!!

  8. It was long in paper form, too. I can't imagine the agony of working out to this! I'm surprised you didn't lay down on the treadmill and take a nap.

  9. I'm the wrong person to ask. I'm just not an audiobooks person or haven't been thus far. My mind wanders too much. I'd much rather read the book than listen to it. On another note I haven't read The Historian yet so am looking forward to reading it after your comments. This one...maybe not so much.

  10. This is why I don't do audiobooks. Listening at home - I get distracted. I don't have a commute. Unless the narration is awesome, I can do the voices and pictures in my head so much better reading a hard copy. I DO have this one and The Historian on my TBR shelves, so hopefully, I'll get to at least one of them this year!


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