1. EdFromNY

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Jun 13, 2010
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    Queens, NY

    "The Swan Thieves" - A Good Study for 1st Person Narrative

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by EdFromNY, Mar 22, 2014.

    I alluded to this in several posts here while I was reading it and finally finished it a few days ago. It's an interesting read for aspiring novelists.

    Like Elizabeth Kostova's first work, The Historian, it has its flaws, but in this case the project is more compact and it's easier to get ones arms around them (her first novel was over 1,000 pages in hardcover; this is a more compact 560). Then again, I've never been put off by long works. I'm also attracted to works in which writers incorporate their non-writing passions into the story. Trollope had his incessant fox hunts; Kostova has painting.

    The story revolves around a painter, Robert Oliver, who is arrested for attempting to stab a painting with a knife. He is committed to a psychiatric facility, and the narrative is carried by the 1st person narratives of three characters - Andrew Marlowe, a male psychiatrist; Kate, Oliver's ex-wife; and Mary, his ex-mistress. There also flashbacks to the 1870s-1890s in France, carried out by letters or 3rd person present narratives.

    Kostova shows us that the biggest challenge to presenting multiple POVs in 1st person is that they really have to be different from one another. But she starts with a problem - because painting is so elemental to her story, all three must have at least an interest in it. Moreover, each must have the ability to recognize Oliver's inherent genius and be awed by it. That's an awfully high degree of commonality to work with.

    Predictably, Marlowe's voice is distinguishable from the others, mostly because of subtle references and because his approach to Oliver is, through most of the story, mostly clinical. Kate and Mary, though differing in age and background, are very similar except for the fact that Kate craves a family and Mary does not. They present almost all of what we know about Oliver, and their reads on him are not very different. Kate's 1st person narrative substitutes for a monologue several chapters in length, while Mary's purports to be a series of letters.

    All in all, it's a cleverly told story with an interesting twist. But I think Kostova meant for the reader to put it together gradually through the novel, because there's no surprise at the end, more of an "Ah, thought so."

    It's longer than it needed to be, I think, though not painfully so. We didn't need all the details of Oliver's marriage to Kate, nor of Mary's early years. And I'm convinced the only reason they were included was to draw a greater distinction between the two voices. The story might have been better served had the voices themselves been more distinct from one another.

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