Monday, July 12, 2010

A Lamentation of Swans

Perhaps it's a strange coincidence that I ended up reading two books at once with swans in the title--The Silver Swan and The Swan Thieves. In an act of diversion, I looked up the official name for a group of swans and found no consensus. They are called a "wedge" when flying in formation (but I've never seen such), but on ground or in water, I see the options as "gaggle," "bevy," or--my favorite--a "lamentation" of swans.

My favorite swan story was passed along in a folklore class taught by Dr. Bill Foster at the University of North Alabama years ago. Around the time some of us were driving to Montgomery to attend a performance of one of the comedies at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival at the gorgeous theater complex financed by Winton Blount. Not only is the theater itself quite beautiful, but the grounds are ideal. There are bronze statues of children running and--if I recall correctly--of Puck playing a pipe. Sheep graze in grassy fields. When planning the site, someone decided they needed to order two pair of swans, one black and one white, from Stratford-upon-Avon. What could be more authentic? After flying the swans almost halfway around the world, though, they learned that the Stratford folks ordered their swans from a little farm about thirty miles from Montgomery, Alabama.

Now, I am not about to check with Snopes for the authenticity of the story. It's just too good. It has absolutely nothing, though, to do with either of the books under discussion.

This past weekend, I finished reading The Swan Thieves, a second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, whose first novel The Historian--a tale involving Vlad the Impaler--garnered lots of acclaim even before vampires were so cool. The premise of this latest novel appealed to me. It opens with an artist being arrested and eventually institutionalized for treatment after he was caught trying to attack a painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery in D.C. The doctor who treats him is also an amateur painter (or frustrated artist); he provides art supplies for his patient, but while he endlessly paints (the same dark, curly-haired woman), he refuses to talk.

Since I tend to love novels with an art angle, I expected to love this book. It did have an engaging story, but while I am usually the more agreeable participant in the "willing suspension of disbelief," I couldn't go all the way with this book. For example, the patient speaks the first day, long enough to give his doctor permission to "talk to anyone--even Mary" then goes silent. Convenient, eh? But he also turns over a packet of letters in French written in the late nineteenth century, which the doctor sends to a friend for translation. The letters (and little narratives about the people between whom the letters are written) are interspersed throughout the novel, but Marlow, the protagonist never responds to them, until they conveniently tie everything together in the end.

The haste to resolution and denouement in the end were also a little too tidy for me, and when I went back to re- read the prologue, I also felt the author had depended far too much on coincidence.

Am I glad I read the book? Sure, but I don't know how readily I'll recommend it to anyone who asks for the titles of the best books I've read lately. Meanwhile, as I'm listening to The Silver Swan on audio, I'll hope it will be less disappointing, so I won't suffer a true "lamentation of swans."

1 comment:

Jessie Carty said...

love the story of the stratford-upon-avon swans :) too funny!

i have a really problem with too much coincidence in storytelling. i liked "the historian" although i felt it could have been trimmed back a bit but not sure I'll pick up this new one...