Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Swan Thieves and The Historian—Elizabeth Kostova



When she had gone, and I was left alone with my trembling emotion, I tried to consider what I had done, what we had done, but my sense of completion and happiness interfered at every mental turn. Today I will go to wait for her again, because I cannot help it, because my whole being seems now to be bound up in the being of one so different from myself and yet so exquisitely familiar that I can scarcely understand what has happened. (The Historian, 399) (I have to say, this is not my favourite quote, but I stopped marking them because I was so enthralled with the story and finishing it.)

And I would not intentionally break any promise to you as long as I live. If I could give you all of my past, and abscond with all of your future. I would do that, as you must guess; and it is perennial grief to me that I cannot. You see how abundant is my selfishness - to think as I do that you might be happy with me when you already have every reason to be happy. (The Swan Thieves, 308)

I first heard about The Historian when I was a senior in college, and a floormate suggested it to me. Now, as a history major, the title was the first drawing point for me. She told me a bit more about it, and I don't think that I'm revealing any spoilers by saying that it's about Dracula. This made me less intrigued, because I felt like the vampire craze was driving me craze-y, and I had been suckered into reading Twilight, possibly the peer pressure moment I will always regret the most. So I bought it (on sale) but it's been sitting on my shelf for almost four years. Funny story: I actually bought another copy one day at Half Price Books, completely forgetting that I already had a copy. So I had two copies which were not being read.

Meanwhile, I remembered Elizabeth Kostova's name and on another trip to Half Price Books, I purchased The Swan Thieves, which I actually read first. The basic summary is that a man is arrested trying to stab a painting in the National Gallery. He is sent to a psychiatric hospital, and his psychiatrist attempts to communicate with him, as psychiatrists are wont to do. However, this man refuses to speak or even acknowledge the presence of his doctor, and only paints, a portrait of the same woman over and over again. On a quest to determine who this woman is - hoping that she might be the answer to attempting to heal his patient - the doctor follows a long path through his patient's life.

A common theme through the two books is the interweaving of several narratives. In The Swan Thieves, part of the story is begun when the doctor is given a bundle of letters that belong to the artist. The letters are actually in French, so he has them translated, and reads them periodically throughout the remainder of the story. The letters were originally written in France in the late 1700s. When he starts reading them, you have no idea why they relate, but by the end, they are tied to the narrative of the modern-day characters.

The same was true of The Historian. A young girl is searching for her father, who is in turn searching for her mother, who, even further still, is searching for Dracula. Like you do. Regardless,  her father relays the story of his journey as a young academic - and in fact his meet-cute with her mother - in a series of letters that he leaves for her when he takes off to try and find her mother. Further, in the letters from her father, there is the story of her maternal grandmother and grandma's encounter with her father's advisor (who, as it turns out, is her maternal grandfather). Sound confusing? It is a bit, although more confusing to explain in three sentences than in 600-odd pages. Going back several generations, having a story within a story within a story - it's all very ambitious. But Kostova pulls it off with admirable aplomb.

Mostly the interwoven stories make sense, because they are all connected in the end. In both books, she did a great job of differentiating (with italics and thoughtfully placed quotation marks) between characters and timelines. The voice change leaves a bit to be desired, especially in The Historian between the writings of a grown academic man and his teenage daughters recollections. Her books are more about narrative than about dialogue, which I appreciate. Few things bother me more than lazy exposition disguised as conversation. If you really can't figure out a better way to reveal the plot to your readers than to have a character straight-up explain it to them, then you really should find a new line of work, in my humble opinion.

Back to the point. I highly suggest both of these books.