Monday, May 31, 2010

Co-review: The Swan Thieves

In 2005, Elizabeth Kostova burst onto the literary scene with her unforgettable first novel, The Historian.  When Jenny wanted to read her recently published second novel as this month's co-review, I eagerly agreed, anxious to see what Kostova would come up with.  After all, The Historian would be tough act to follow!

The Swan Thieves is very much a departure from the world of vampires, mysterious disappearances, and barbaric torture portrayed in The Historian.  But there were still some familiar aspects of Kostova's writing in her shifting narratives, interest in history, and the way she convincingly merged both fiction and historical fact.  This time, the object of her historical interest is the rise of French Impressionism in the late 19th century.  (See, I said it was a departure from vampires.)

The Swan Thieves opens in 1999, but much of the story is told in flashback.  Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist and amateur painter who is baffled at how to help his newest patient, Robert Oliver, a famous contemporary artist who is arrested for trying to attack an Impressionist painting in the National Gallery in DC.  After telling Marlow that he "did it for her," Oliver refuses to speak, but obsessively paints a certain woman over and over again.  In an effort to break his silence and try to help him, Marlow begins a search into Oliver's past to learn who this woman is and why he is obsessed with her.

Through Marlow's investigation we meet Kate, Oliver's ex-wife, and hear the heartbreaking story of a marriage destroyed by mental illness.  We meet Mary, the young former student Oliver turns to after his divorce, but who also falls victim to his obsession with this other woman.  And through letters and a healthy dose of imagination, we also meet the enigmatic woman herself, BĂ©atrice de Clerval, a young artist in the early days of French Impressionism who develops a romantic attachment to an elderly friend and mentor (also, complicatedly, her husband's uncle), which ultimately puts an early stop to her promising career.  As the separate stories unfold and intertwine, they parallel each other with recurring themes of forbidden love, love between disparate ages, and the creative passion and skill required of great fine artists.  There aren't any great spoilers to reveal with this one, but if you are interested in reading it yourself, beware that you might learn more than you'd like through our discussion.

Caren: First, I have to say that I loved reading about the art, particularly the Impressionists.  It took me back to my college days where Art History was one of my favorite disciplines in the Humanities, and Impressionism was a definite highlight.  I am not an artist myself, so I don't know how well Kostova represented that side of things, but it felt convincing and genuine to me.  I just wish that there could have been accompanying images because although she did a good job portraying the visual works through the written word, it still left me hungry to see them myself.

Jenny:  The art was fascinating to me and to hear how the artists themselves describe how they saw light and color was amazing.  Having never even taken so much as an art class and very little art history in college (except for when it was in tandem with music history), this was all new territory for me.  I can label most artistic movements and recognize major works, but not much more than that.  Reading this book gave me a fierce craving to learn more.

I love how Kostova takes real people and makes a lovely fictional tale out of what bare facts history has recorded.  Like her rendition of Vlad the Impaler in The Historian, she turns Beatrice de Clerval into a fascinating character.  I wonder if Kostova studied de Clerval's paintings at some point and said, "Hmm, she stopped painting at the age of twenty-nine.  I wonder what happened..."  And there her story formed in her imagination. 

I felt like this was really a love story with the art history as a beautiful excuse to write about it.  It made me sad that these love stories revolved around infidelity, with so many of the characters being unfaithful to their spouses.  Of course, you also see the heartbreak that accompanies that behavior so at least Kostova wasn't necessarily endorsing it.  One of the saddest situations is just how many people Robert Oliver hurt because of his obsession with Beatrice.  She made have been dead for nearly a century, but his obsessive love for her ruined his marriage.  That counts nearly as much as if he'd had an affair.

Caren: Okay, you brought up an interesting aspect of Kostova's writing.  She does such a good job combining fiction and history that it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.  As a reader I was persuaded that de Clerval and the other players in her historical drama were real.  But it turns out that they were all fiction (thanks Google!).  Even Gilbert Thomas, the character who seemed to be the most entrenched in historical fact was fictional.  But she gives them enough historical back story that it was hard to tell!

You also mentioned one of the things that bugged me about the book.  All the infidelity got old after a while.  And I had a hard time caring that much about the characters.  Kate interested me at the beginning, but then she dropped off and we never saw her again.  Mary didn't impress me all that much; Marlow seemed weirdly obsessive with the women in Oliver's life; and then the relationship between the two of them didn't do anything for me.  I think part of it may have been that too much of the story was told in these rambling flashback monologues about events that weren't all that significant in moving the plot forward.  Not much happened, even with the resolution.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I can enjoy a thoughtful story with a slow pace.  But it only works if I care deeply about the characters so that they're personal drama is very moving.  I would have loved to see things from Oliver's perspective, because he was the most intriguing person in the story.  But as it was, I wasn't that engaged with the others.

Jenny:  Okay, now I feel stupid.  I should have checked first if Beatrice de Clerval was a real person.  Oh well, I guess that's a credit to Kostova's convincing storytelling. 

I'm totally with you on not loving the characters.  When Marlow was so emotional about becoming a father, I wasn't particularly moved.  Did you get the impression he was so keen on having a family and being a father?  I didn't get that, but part of it was that I didn't really feel like I knew any of these people all that well.  I didn't particularly like what I saw either, what will all the sleeping around and cheating on spouses and whatnot.  I would have loved to get a glimpse in Oliver's mind, but I suppose that would negate the whole mystery of why he was obsessed.  You know who I did like?  Marlow's dad.  He was awesome.  My favorite line from him was, "Madame, I observe that your heart is broken.  Allow me to repair it for you."  That killed me.

Honestly, I kept expecting there to be a supernatural element to it, like Robert was Olivier Vignot's reincarnation or something weird.  I mean, she did just write a book about Dracula after all.

Caren: Don't feel bad because I couldn't tell either who was fiction and who wasn't.  I had to look it up!  And I was totally looking for the supernatural too.  Some sort of otherworldly explanation for his obsession and what it meant.  Especially since Marlow seemed to fall prey to the same obsession the more he investigated Robert Oliver's past.  What was the deal with this woman that she inspired such obsessions?  And maybe that missing supernatural element is one more reason it was disappointing.  Kostova is going to have a hard time shaking the prejudices from The Historian!

I was telling my sister how much more I enjoyed The Historian over The Swan Thieves.  She hasn't read either one yet, so I suggested that she read The Swan Thieves first so that her perspective isn't colored by The Historian.  I hope she does because I would be really curious to hear what someone thinks who approaches it for the first time without the baggage of The Historian.

Jenny:  My husband would call that "managing expectations".  If your sister reads The Swan Thieves first, tell her to leave what she thinks in the comment box.  I'm curious about what an untainted opinion would be like. 

I feel like we've just trashed this book.  The suspense of finding out the mystery of Robert's obsession was compelling.  The art history and descriptions were totally enjoyable.  There were good aspects of this book.

Caren: Oh yeah, definitely. Kostova has distinctive abilities as a writer and I wouldn't hesitate to try another novel of hers.  I just wouldn't necessarily rush to recommend this particular one.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How to Spin Gold

I have a problem.  If something bothers me when I'm reading a book, I tend to let that prejudice my opinion and pretty soon I can't see anything good about it.  I obsess over that one fault and refuse to find redeeming qualities.  I know, not good.  I'm working on it.  Such was the case for How To Spin Gold by Elizabeth Cunningham.  It is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, though it was written way before fairy tale retelling became popular.  It's also written for an adult audience, so it's not really in the same genre of Ella Enchanted or The Goose Girl, which are written for young readers.  It's more like Cunningham used that tale as the framework for her story. 

Our main character is the Girl with the Silver Eye, unnamed because she was never given one until later in life.  Born crippled and with eyes of different colors, the girl is shunned by her village and her family.  Set during 12th century, women have few opportunities in life besides having marriage and babies.  After a random meeting with the Prince, the girl decides to make her own way in the world.  She meets up with the Wise Woman of the Western Wood.  Or Witch, as most call her outside of her hearing.  The Mother, as she prefers to be called, takes the girl under her wing and teaches her herblore, midwifery, and everything about her small domain in the woods.  The girl is a quick learner and adds her own mastery of needlework to the pot.

The girl is tormented by her obsession with the prince and with the girl who eventually marries him.   She becomes the Mother's heir and eventually learns her true name, but she's so dissatisfied with her life that she lets her anger and jealousy become an obstacle.  Then, when the moment comes where she saves the new Princess's life she demands a harsh price: the first daughter born to the Princess.  Only when the baby is born, she is unable to take her away when she sees how much the Prince loves his daughter.  She's not as harsh as she wishes she was.

There are so many aspects of this book that are lovely.  The evolution of the girl, her reconciliation with who she really is versus what she wishes she were, the contrast of following light or being consumed by darkness, and the themes of forgiveness and redemption.  But I hated the language.  I didn't like how Cunningham was trying to write as if she were a writer of that time period.  I also thought her feminist empowerment idea had made for really one-dimensional male characters.  It bugged me.  It wasn't until I went to my book group meeting and listened to everyone's perspective on the book that I realized I had almost missed out on so much because of a couple of hang-ups.  What if this hadn't been a book group selection and instead I had read it on my own and then panned it here on Red Hot Eyebrows?  Then you all would have missed out too, if you took my word for it.

Thanks to the lovely women of my book group who showed me the light.  Next time I think I don't like a book, I'll just ask some of them to read it too and tell me what I can't see.  I wouldn't list this on my top books for 2010, but it certainly had more value that I originally gave it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Top 100 Picture Books

Since so many of you enjoyed the post about the top 100 children's novels, I thought I would do some digging and present the top 100 picture books list from 2009.  There were a whole pile of books I didn't recognize in this list, though the top 15 were all ones I have read or own.  Here are the books that didn't make the list, in case you were curious.  I would do some major shuffling, eliminating and adding to this particular list.  I didn't disagree nearly as strongly with the novel list.  Why is that, I wonder?  Hmmm.

You might notice that I haven't blogged about anything I've read lately.  That's because I'm in the midst of RCPP season.  That would be Recitals, Concerts, Presentations, and Projects. Oy.  I'm sick of school and it's not even me who's going.  Caren's excuse is a new baby.  Congrats to her!  Now spend some of those wee hours reading, wouldya?  It'll make me look less lazy.  Ha ha, I jest.  Sorta.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Top 100 Children's Novels

Recently I found myself eagerly checking the School Library Journal's blog every single day.  They had called for librarians, writers, readers and all who were interested to rate their top ten children's novels of all time.  There was a system of how many points a book got according to its placement on each person's list.  I'm glad I'm not the one who had to figure it all out, instead I just got to read and enjoy.  Now I'm going to make it even easier on you and tell you to click here to see the complete list.

I was delighted to find that the list split equally among books I'd never read or never heard of, books I love and cherish and own, and books I remember reading at some point but don't own.  I would have shuffled some of the order of the books to suit my preferences, but in general it was pretty close to what I consider the best.  I've put some of the books I'd like to own on my Amazon wish list and will now have Christmas present ideas for a few years.

If ever you find yourself in need of a good book for you or your kids to read, hop over to the list and see what might fit.  I might have my kids work their way through the list over the summer, now that I think about it.  Maybe I will too.