Audiobook Review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

The Swan Thieves is Kostova's sophomore novel, following her well-received Dracula-based novel, The Historian. The premise is simple but strikingly complex: Robert Oliver, a famous painter, suffers some kind of mental breakdown and attacks a painting in the National Gallery, and his dedicated psychiatrist aims to find out why. Robert refuses to speak after his first day in the mental hospital, leaving his doctor, Marlow, to find out what has happened. Through the voices of characters from Robert's past, Kostova reveals a complicated and complex history to Robert.

Through these characters, both modern-day and from 19th-century France, Kostova weaves a beautiful tale of love, art, and obsession. Her story is long, deep and incredibly detailed, simple yet complicated, and full of passion - for love, for art, for psychiatry, for human relationships, for France, for history, and for every small detail that life offers forth. Her writing is pure and simple, but her vivid descriptions are breathtaking, and - as all great writing should - quite literally open readers' eyes to a world as yet unseen, a set of descriptions as yet unknown.

Lovers of art and art historians are sure to appreciate the incredible research that is sure to have gone into this work, from descriptions of the National Portrait Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to those of Monet's brushstrokes, Degas' ballerinas, and Robert Oliver's careful and somehow carefree sketches. Readers that enjoy psychology and the inner workings of behavior and relationships will appreciate Marlow's musings on Robert's strange issues. And those who simply enjoy a passionate, talented writer are sure to value Kostova's incredible ability to pinpoint the smallest of actions, the tiniest of details, proving her as much an artist as those impressionists she describes throughout the novel, as much a psychologist as Dr. Marlow himself.

Bottom line: Whether or not you have read The Historian, The Swan Thieves is bound to make a Kostova fan out of any who read it. This is great writing, not good. Existing fans of Kostova will enjoy a second chance to see the world through her clever, detailed pen, and those new to her work (such as myself), will find a new author to watch for - and find themselves on a mission to read The Historian as soon as possible. With crisp characters, an ear for history and an eye for detail, The Swan Thieves is a phenomenal addition to the world of modern literature, and personally, I am excited to see what other great works lay in the wings of Kostova's literary stage.

Audio review: I listened to this book on CD, from Hachette Audio. The audio version of this book is spectacularly done, with five actors offering voices for the five main narrators of the story. Astounding, all five have voices that one could fall into, listening to for hours - lucky, since the unabridged CDs number 17, and offer over 20 hours of listening pleasure. The actors - or their voices, anyway - are well-cast, well-read, and never over-acted or over-done. Narrators change from one chapter to the next, but only as Kostova has written different chapters from different points of view - any dialogue within a chapter is done by the narrator, not in an exchange of voices.


Disclosure: I won a copy of this from the All About {n} blog (thank you!), and my copy was shipped to me from Hachette Audio.


  1. This is the first I have heard of this book, but I have read The Historian. I will be interested to hear your take on that one, since it took me forever to get into it. It was a very good book and very well-written, but I really had to slog through about the first half (and it's a fairly long book, so that's a lot of slogging!)

  2. Kathy - I think Kostova's writing style tends to be somewhat slow. The Swan Thieves definitely started slowly and built up by the end, but I was so struck with the use of language and her descriptive passages that I didn't mind the slow build-up. Looking forward to the Historian - will definitely share thoughts when I get through it!

  3. I have been listening to audio books lately and have only come across the rare one that employees more than one voice. How wonderful.

  4. I read the print version of this book and loved it so I'm glad to see the audio was well done.


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