Second hand Best Sellers – The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Tam’s second-hand bestsellers book finds…..

So here’s the Criteria:-

Each book must be bought secondhand for no more than £1

Each book must claim on its front cover that it is a bestseller

12 books – one per month for a year

Do feel free to join me and share your second-hand bestsellers in the comments


Available at Waterstones - click here
Available at Waterstones – click here

I had high hopes for this novel as it boasted on its cover “International Bestselling Author” and a snippet from the review by The Times promising it to be “tantalising” and “richly entertaining”. It starts with the image of a woman walking in the dusk through a silent, snowy village and her image being recorded in an oil painting by Sisley. Sadly those two pages were the best part of this 600 page book. Although the imagery continued to charm in parts, the plot and the constant retrospect left me bored and I kept waiting for something to happen.

Robert Oliver the artist at the centre of the drama doesn’t speak – he has been committed to an institution after trying to slash a painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery. So dedicated is his psychiatrist (Marlow) that he decides to traipse all over the country and even further afield in order to research Oliver’s history! Three quarters of the book is taken by Oliver’s wife and Oliver’s mistress as they tell similar stories of a brilliant artist fixated by another woman. Oliver paints this woman over and over and over but will not tell anyone who she is nor why he is obsessed by her. Then suddenly Marlow discovers that he’s falling for Oliver’s ex- mistress and she in returns tells him that the woman at the centre of Robert’s illness was an artist who died a century earlier and off they go together to view a portrait of Beatrice de Clerval. From there Marlow then “retrieves” from Oliver a bundle of personal letters that passed between Beatrice and her uncle and flies to France to return them to the man from whom Oliver had stolen them. After that Marlow pieces together that the painting it was mistakenly assumed that Oliver had tried to attack was in fact painted by Beatrice who had been blackmailed by an unscrupulous dealer in allowing him to pass it off as his work. Using the design on the bottom of the dress that Beatrice was wearing for her portrait Marlow then tracks down the village which Sisley was painting at the start of the novel and finds long lost proof that Beatrice was in fact the artist who created the Swan Thieves and Leda. He returns to America to discover Oliver cured of his selective mutism and able to rejoin society.

I love the concept of this but the execution of it was as exciting as a telephone directory. At no point do we come to understand why Oliver became obsessed to the point of madness with the image of a dead artist nor how he had been able to piece her history together. Infact I was left wondering why he ‘recovers’ – nothing is discovered that he doesn’t already know and Beatrice is not going to be given the credit she deserved as a brilliant artist. Was it meant to be a mystery or a romance – I don’t know but it was far too long and frankly tedious!

It marginally scrapes 2 bites because of the imagery.

Tamara Thomas
I am the only girl and youngest of four children, I grew up in a home stuffed with books, and now some fifty years later, great piles of them still appear in every room I inhabit. I won’t waste my time reading books that leave me feeling sour, dirty or depressed; books are a source of light and inspiration in my world. Nevertheless, I love a book that makes me cry with loss or sadness such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Book Thief. Bliss is a winter’s afternoon on the sofa, snuggled in with my dogs, stove blazing and an absorbing book.