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The Swan Thieves: A Novel
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The Swan Thieves: A Novel

3.5 315
by Elizabeth Kostova

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Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist, has a perfectly ordered life--solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when the renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes Marlow's patient.

When Oliver refuses to talk or cooperate, Marlow finds himself going


Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist, has a perfectly ordered life--solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when the renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes Marlow's patient.

When Oliver refuses to talk or cooperate, Marlow finds himself going beyond his own legal and ethical boundaries to understand the secret that torments this silent genius, a journey that will lead him into the lives of the women closest to Robert Oliver and toward a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.

Moving from American museums to the coast of Normandy, from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, from young love to last love, THE SWAN THIEVES is a story of obsession, the losses of history, and the power of art to preserve human hope.

Editorial Reviews

Laura Miller
Elizabeth Kostova's 2005 debut, The Historian, is one of those bestsellers that confirm the unpredictability of the reading public's taste. Nothing about the novel operates according to established formula. It is a vampire story without gore or brooding passions, a historical thriller without much in the way of action. The facts in it (and despite the supernatural premise, there is a lot of history in The Historian) are rigorously researched and unsensationalized. Unlike most contemporary authors who claim to be inspired by the 19th-century novel, Kostova actually hews pretty close to the Victorian model; her narrative unfolds at a pace that can only be called sedate. There are no grabby openers or flashy twists. She has placed her faith in the conviction that readers are pleased to sink slowly into a novel, until the world it conjures has closed over their heads, submerging them entirely.

The marvel of The Historian is that this earnest and antiquated strategy actually works, in no small part due to Kostova's gift for atmosphere. You shiver amid the firs of her primeval Carpathian forests and taste the chalky dust of her Languedoc mountains at the back of your throat. Reading her descriptions of Oxford and Istanbul is like taking a three-paragraph vacation. This sensual immediacy and the languidness of the plot combine to summon a mood of genuine dread, as the novel's inexorable, waxen-faced villain emerges from the shadows at its core.

In her second novel, The Swan Thieves, Kostova starts with less promising material. Superficially, the book belongs to that genre of contemporary fiction that spins out back stories for famous paintings, usually about how the artist was secretly in love with his model. And while painters cut decidedly more romantic figures than the scholars of The Historian, the settings where Kostova places her artists -- Washington, D.C., a college town in North Carolina and a drab resort on the Normandy coast -- lack the wild mystery of Bulgaria and Southern France.

The narrator of The Swan Thieves is Andrew Marlow, a middle-aged psychiatrist who becomes personally entangled in the case of a new patient at the private residential center where he works. The patient is Robert Oliver, a 42-year-old artist of burgeoning reputation who gets arrested for trying to slash a painting at the National Gallery. After a brief conversation with Marlow, Robert refuses to speak, occupying his hours with poring over a cache of old letters and drawing and painting endless portraits of an unidentified dark-haired woman dressed in 19th-century clothes.

Readers will immediately surmise that the woman depicted in Robert's art is one of the letter writers, Beatrice de Clerval, the young wife of a French postal official and a talented painter of the nascent Impressionist school. Her correspondent is her husband's uncle, also a painter. Robert is obviously in love with Beatrice, who died 40 years before he was born, but why this should have led him to attack a canvas by yet another painter, Gilbert Thomas, who was also Beatrice's art dealer, remains a puzzle until the end of the book. It takes Marlow much, much longer to figure out the identity of Robert's dark lady than it ought to, but perhaps that's because he doesn't realize he's in a novel about obsessive artists and love that transcends time.

Marlow persuades Robert to lend him the letters, and a friend begins sending translations one by one through the mail as the doctor interviews Robert's ex-wife and former lover about his patient's past. What starts out as marginally ethical investigation soon lapses into a series of major professional transgressions, a parallel to the blossoming of Beatrice's adulterous love for her correspondent, Olivier Vignot. Eventually, the translated letters morph into Marlow's full-fledged imaginings of Beatrice and Olivier's forbidden affair, interspersed with first-person accounts by Robert's wife and lover of their despair in loving a man whose heart is always at least partly somewhere else. Once The Swan Thieves gets fully underway, it becomes a braid of three narratives, set in the present, the recent past, and the late 1870s.

The Swan Thieves is a ghost story without a ghost. A likely model is Wuthering Heights, in which the sins of one generation resurface, along with slightly shuffled names and romantic configurations, in the generations that follow. Stolen letters, May-December affairs, infidelity, and frustrated artistic ambitions keep recurring in the various time periods, but so, more enigmatically, do certain tiny details: a hat with blue flowers and a biography of Isaac Newton. The problem that nettles each of the characters is the conflict between life and art, epitomized by a single question: Why did Beatrice abandon painting just as it was becoming clear that she was a major talent? Was it merely to devote herself to raising a much-longed-for child, or was the cause more sinister?

Furthermore, how much love can a great artist truly spare for the people around him? "There was a chilliness about him," Robert's lover recalls, "a cold eye under his warm-colored skin and smile.... There was no effort in this, no struggle in him not to compromise for personal reasons." Yet he is also blissfully unselfconscious, "he simply didn't know how not to be himself," and this makes him fatally attractive to a certain type of woman. To fall in love with such a man is to embrace, wittingly or not, solitude; Robert's isolation is contagious. If the prevailing mood of The Historian was gothic foreboding, then here it's the claustrophobia and solipsism of obsession -- whether amorous or artistic -- the way it slides in and out of madness like a phantom hovering between life and death. Robert is, in his way, as much a monster, as undead, as Dracula.

Despite replicating some of the flaws of The Historian, The Swan Thieves also exerts a good bit of the earlier book's hypnotic thrall. Those flaws -- the proliferating descriptions, the extremely leisurely doling out of plot, the handful of inconsistencies and loose ends (Why does Robert stop talking, for example?) -- are the sorts of things that bother you later, after you've ditched friends and family to stay up past your bedtime reading, for reasons you can't quite explain. Storytellers are the artists who make monsters of us all. --Laura Miller

Laura Miller helped to co-found Salon.com in 1995 and is currently a staff writer at that publication. Her reviews and articles appear in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She is the author of The Magician's Book (2008) and the editor of The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000).

Washington Post
"The many ardent admirers of The Historian will be happy to learn that The Swan Thieves offers plenty of the same pleasures."
Associated Press
"A must-read for lovers of historical fiction....The Swan Thieves shows the same meticulous historical research and scene-setting description that elevated The Historian from a vampire tale to a work of art."
Denver Post
"A compelling story....Fans of The Historian have been waiting a long time for a new work from Kostova. They won't be disappointed."
"Kostova's eloquent prose possesses the power to both transport and inspire."
Entertainment Weekly
"Kostova knows how to craft a breathless ending."
Washington Post
"The many ardent admirers of The Historian will be happy to learn that The Swan Thieves offers plenty of the same pleasures."
Associated Press Staff
"A must-read for lovers of historical fiction....The Swan Thieves shows the same meticulous historical research and scene-setting description that elevated The Historian from a vampire tale to a work of art."
Denver Post
"A compelling story....Fans of The Historian have been waiting a long time for a new work from Kostova. They won't be disappointed."
"Kostova's eloquent prose possesses the power to both transport and inspire."
Entertainment Weekly
"Kostova knows how to craft a breathless ending."
From the Publisher
"The many ardent admirers of The Historian will be happy to learn that The Swan Thieves offers plenty of the same pleasures." —Washington Post

"A must-read for lovers of historical fiction....The Swan Thieves shows the same meticulous historical research and scene-setting description that elevated The Historian from a vampire tale to a work of art." —Associated Press

"A compelling story....Fans of The Historian have been waiting a long time for a new work from Kostova. They won't be disappointed." —Denver Post

"Kostova's eloquent prose possesses the power to both transport and inspire." —BookPage

"Kostova knows how to craft a breathless ending." —Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.64(w) x 8.08(h) x 1.58(d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Kostova is the author of the international bestseller The Historian. She graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress.

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The Swan Thieves 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 315 reviews.
TheCrowdedLeaf More than 1 year ago
If you've read Kostova's first novel, The Historian, then you know she likes to tell a long story; and you know that it will be rich, and deep, and full of life and mystery and intrigue and suspense. If you haven't read The Historian then I highly recommend it. The good news is that you can get it now, whereas The Swan Thieves will not be released until January 12, 2010. I actually feel a little bad that I am reviewing this now, since it's not released for a while, but I want it to be fresh in my head, and I promise I won't spoil it. The Swan Thieves begins by introducing us to Dr. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist whose newest patient is Robert Oliver, a painter who attacked a painting at the National Gallery of Art. Robert has recently been divorced from his wife Kate, has abandoned his latest girlfriend, and now refuses to speak . Since his patient refuses to talk, Marlow must delve into Robert's personal life to find the mystery behind Robert's display of violence and lack of communication, as well as discover the identity of the woman he paints over and over. In doing so, Marlow discovers a long hidden secret and scandal in the world of 19th century art. This book is like an onion; fold after fragrant fold reveals something intriguing, spicy, and a little exotic. It's a mystery, an old fashioned love story, and a new romance all at once. It's not simply about a psychiatrist and his patient, it's about the pressure of people's expectations, and the lengths you go to to protect the ones you love. It's about art, and passion, and beauty in barren landscapes. Kostova artfully switches between the present dialogue of Marlow, who is telling this story to us, and the past entries of ancient letters and scenes from the 19th century, as well as chapters from other characters points of view. She skillfully rotates the other characters so that we're never subjected to second-hand information. It's almost as though there are several stories woven into one, but each of them as lovely as the one before, and the one after. It's a multilayered novel, with more than one question and answer that Marlow, and now us readers, are searching for. Why did Robert attack the painting? Who are the women in his life, and what do they mean to him? How are the ancient letters he reads over and over related? Is Robert actually ill, or is there more to his silence and obsession? I found myself wondering all of these things, and hypothesizing on my own as to what would happen. There came a point, about seven-eighths of the way through the book, when part of the puzzle fell into place and I realized my breathing was so shallow, and my shoulders were so hunched, that I was completely tense waiting for the piece of information I had just received. I had to swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep breath and relax before I passed out on the train. That would have been great, right? I am not sure which character I like best in this book, because truthfully Kostova's characters are so tangible and realistic that I can't not like any single one of them, even Robert. If you wanted her second book to follow the vampire theme from The Historian, you will be disappointed. But if you want a mystery, an old-fashioned honest-to-goodness mystery complete from fiction and imagination, then this is a book you must read. You will not regret it. I'm torn between 4 and 5 stars on this one. It's a fantastically wonderful, beautiful book and I can't wait to see what is next.
ChelseaW More than 1 year ago
This is her newest book since 2005's hit THE HISTORIAN, and unfortunately, I do not think she was quite as powerful this time around. Of course, I still loved it and devoured it in three days. Andrew Marlow is the psychiatrist assigned to artist Robert Oliver, after he is arrested for attempting to stab a painting in the National Gallery of Art. Oliver refuses to speak, and so Marlow begins to contact those in his life around him for answers. We learn about the man Robert was then and is now through the voices of these people - mostly women who loved him - and watch as Marlow becomes enveloped in the life of his new patient. THE SWAN THIEVES is full of very interesting characters, with well written mini histories as part of a larger story. Learning about Robert from the women who loved him was a bit like watching a car crash - I knew it was not going to end well and yet I could not keep from turning the pages. Mental illness is never easy to read about, but Kostova writes with grace and beauty that brings new life and even a certain amount of cleanliness to Oliver's decline. Elizabeth Kostova proves again that she is a master at storytelling.
A_J_O More than 1 year ago
I count the Historian as one of my favorite books. I can hardly believe the Swan Thieves is written by the same author. I wanted to like this, knew I would like this, but I can't finish it. I've read the first few chapters, thinking I would give it time and wait for the story to unfold but I can't stand any of the characters (except the one that won't talk) and it's taking forever to get the ball rolling. I'm bored and I hate to say that about this book--I'm sad to say that about this book. If she writes another, I won't be able to help but at least give it a try. The Historian was just that good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Elizabeth Kostova...does the author's name ring a bell? Unless you picked up her bestselling novel, "The Historian", it probably won't. "The Swan Thieves", to be published in January, is Kostova's only other published work. Unlike...oh, shall we say...James Patterson, she takes her time in crafting marvelously ingenious tales. It will probably take you awhile to get to the end of "The Swan Thieves". It should. The short chapters (all 106 of them) should be savored until you get to the wonderfully satisfying ending. The story centers around Dr. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist, who is trying desperately to find a way to help his newest patient...the gifted artist, Robert Oliver. Oliver is placed under Marlow's care when he tries to stab a painting in a museum. Oliver will not speak, so it is up to Marlow to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Along the way, he interviews many people from Oliver's past, who, sometimes reluctantly, tell his story. Interspersed with present day, we are taken back in time to Paris to the late 1800s, where we are introduced to Olivier Vignot, an elderly painter, and his muse, Beatrice de Clerval, through a series of letters between them. Kostova masterfully alternates between the two stories, until we come to the heartbreaking conclusion and the connection between them. This is not a book that you can't put down; nor is it a book that you will breeze right through. But when the pieces come together, you will feel that you just read a very quality piece of literature. MY RATING - 5/5 To see my rating scale and other reviews, please check out my blog: http://www.1776books.blogspot.com.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why am I still reading this! It's become more of an endurance test at this point. The book is very well written, but LABORIOUSLY so. It's a heavy read, giving you so many details about really very minor things that it begins to feel like a text book. I am an avid reader, and I find myself exhausted after a few chapters. There is really NOTHING left to the imagination about the settings and these characters. Several well-known cities are described throughout the narrative, and it gets a bit irritating to have such common settings described to me over and over again. Additionally, this is a multiple narrative, but every character seems to have the same voice. And it's so pretentious! Every stereotype, every preconceived notion you have about artists-- let's start the checklist: lived in NYC, atheist, unmarried because it's too (___), mentally disturbed, obsessed with France, sketching in cafes, become a teacher for income/hours, hands/clothes covered in paint, couch cruising..... Yeah, Swan Thieves hits all those. I paid for it, so I'll finish it, but this book is too detailed to get through with long sittings. I wouldn't recommend picking at it either, because it's SO detailed, you may forget something important between reads.
ZQuilts More than 1 year ago
I was so excited to hear that this book was almost ready to ship! I had been waiting for this book ever since I finished reading "The Historian" which is oneo of my favorite books of all time. Unfortunately, I am probably going to buck the tide on this one, but I was very disappointed in it. The narratives were long. The book consists of chapters as told by several people and also through letters. Having the chapters titled by whose character is 'speaking' is a valuable thing because it would be difficult to follow if it had not been arranged this way. Elizabeth Kostova is a fabulous writer and her narratives are good but I just thought that is book had a lot of filler. Generally I give a book about 150 pages to interest me. If is hasn't by then I generally lay it aside to wither give away or try again at another time. I keep going though in reading this book because I could not believe that by page 200 I was not spellbound - as I had been with "The Historian". I plowed though this whole book. The end was a bit of a redemption - and the book, for me, picked up towards the end. I am not sure that I am glad or not that I continued reading this book until the end - there are so many wonderful books on my bulging shelves waiting to be read that I know would have kept me enthralled from beginning to end. I think I kept going because I thought that there HAD to be better pages ahead. I notice here on B&N that there are many VERY positive reviews - so I am, in fact, bucking the majority - but that's the way I call it. Now, I will once again wait with bated breath for Elizabeth's Kostova's next book to be available for pre-order and I am sure that I will order it as soon as I am able to. I hope it will thrill me more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have to agree with "msayyid" on this one! I was really looking forward to reading this book, as I enjoyed "The Historian" so much and the description of this one sounded interesting. But I was very disappointed. The beginning of the book was alright, but I felt that it just kept dragging on and on with nothing much of interest to say. Yes, the "forbidden love" story woven within the main tale was nice, but it seemed like the author didn't know what to do with it once she started. She implied a "reincarnation" theme (Robert questions it, as well as the oh-so-similar name theme with Robert Oliver and Olivier Vignot), but as one trudges through the novel, it comes to mean nothing. The main character is silent, and without much good cause other than a reference to "repentence" (???)--which falls by the wayside really. Kostova does a good job describing paintings, but the characters go pretty much nowhere for no reason. Any and all elements of a "real" connection between Robert Oliver and Beatrice are merely a creation of a fragile mind (Robert's), and any mystical elements that were alluded to at the start of the book vaporize into nothingness really. I just feel that both Dr Marlow AND I wasted our time trying to unravel the secret of "the silent painter" and, in reference to the book itself, would have been better off reading an actual Sherlock Holmes novel instead. :) I'm hoping Kostova writes another book because I did like her first one. Just because I didn't enjoy this one doesn't mean I give up on her. I think she has talent that is just better showcased in the right story; unfortunately, this wasn't it.
PartlyDave More than 1 year ago
I'm not as thrilled with The Swan Thieves as I was with Kostova's "The Historian". Character development is too slow. The silence of the thief in his mental illness is painfully slow. The male lead character, his psychologist, is too cautious. The female lead character probably is autobiographical, a side of Kostova that is different than her female lead character in "The Historian". As in "The Historian", creative writing is excellent. Personal characteristics of characters' physical appearance, neighborhood street scenes, and local cultural language are precise. Visual images keep the reader intimately present in the scene. Kostova got my attention with "The Historian". She will remain on my watch list.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am very disappointed to see any negative reviews of this book. Not all books need to have someone brutally murdered, or a boogeyman jumping out from behind a bush in order to make it interesting. In fact, what makes this book so great is that the author doesn't need to employ any of the cheesy techniques that many other not-so-great authors need. Kostova has written another amazing story, equally as amazing as The Historian.
mel22mm More than 1 year ago
Reading The Swan Thieves is like visiting a museum and being able to jump into the master paintings.
Jpitts8 More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed Kostova's first novel, but this one eclipsed its predecessor. I like reading "smart" novels, fiction that is closer to (L)iterature than the average beach read. "The Swan Thieves" delivered, in a big way. It's poignant and witty, and very, very well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In quite a change of pace from her first novel "The Historian", Elizabeth takes us from Eastern Europe and the Dracula story to Washington, D.C., and a work of art. A patient is referred to a psychiatrist after attempting to slash a painting. The patient is non-commmunicative, the psychiatrist is an amateur artist who through his interest in art, the history of the painting and its artist, Kostova weaves a most interesting tale to explain the patient's attraction to this work of art. The author keeps the readers attention through all 550 plus pages.
SusanReads More than 1 year ago
I waited very impatiently for the arrival of this novel. I had enjoyed The Historian, forget Stephanie Myers, so much, I knew that this had to be as good. I wasn't disappointed; it is a great read. I just didn't like it as well as her first novel. I found the character of the doctor to be a little too involved in his patient's life, although the story couldn't have progressed without that element. I also struggled with the idea of him latching on to the ex-girlfriend of the patient as well. But the idea of the artistic characters living through time was incredibly done.
Cyd71 More than 1 year ago
The Swan Thieves is another fascinating story beautifully told by Elizabeth Kostova! With characters and settings lovingly and realistically created the story immerses the reader in an obsession that connects two worlds one hundred and twenty years apart. The Swan Thieves with Kostova's beautiful flowing writing is a book I found difficult to put down. It is a joy to read and a book well worth rereading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An ultimate love story compelled by a letters of the late 1800's. The letters are the key element that drives the obsession of a current artist almost to the illusion of being mad. The personalities of the characters where presented with much depth that brought a visual while reading the book. It gave me an interest to read more of the history of Art wanting to appreciate the heartfelt embrace each artist posseses with hand and brush. The passion of the artist Robert Oliver for unveiling the unjust to a genius artist Beatrice de Clerval. A wonderful story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed this book. In fact so much that I have gave it to one of my friends who loves French things and has just begun painting. The imagery was amazing! The flow of the characters was exciting. I felt the pain this trouble painter felt as well as the confusion of the one who loved him. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves art, history and relationships. Elizabeth Kostova wrote this book from a man's perspectives and did it superbly.
DKReads More than 1 year ago
I gave The Swan Thieves four stars because it really was a nice book. It was an easy read and really turned out to be a romance rather than a mystery. Who knew? Ms. Kostova's writing style draws you in and allows you to know her characters well. I would recommend you check this book out at the library. With all that being said, this book does not equal The Historian, Ms. Kostova's first book. I had high hopes, but the story and plot never really attain any level of the dramatic.
emc51 More than 1 year ago
I never read The Historian because of its subject - vampires. However, I picked up this novel because of the rave reviews for The Historian. I was immediately entralled with The Swan Thieves for reasons I could not explain while I was reading it. I can usually pinpoint what it is about a novel that interests me, so this was unusual. I surely was focused on the mystery surrounding Robert's obcession with what was at first, an unidentified woman, who later is identified as a dead woman. I can certainly understand why some readers will not like this book because it is so slow, and the lengthly descriptions might turn readers off. I can, however, appreciate how an author takes time to weave a deeper understanding of a complicated story. This novel IS a complicated story. On a positive note, the author's BFA background provides readers with an insight into the Impressionistic period of art history. It was the ending that disappointed me. I expected "Olivier" to be connected to "Oliver", and it did not happen. I expected the often described "black curls" of Beatrice to be connected to the frequently mentioned "black curls" of Robert, and it did not happen. I expected Robert's French background and artistic talent to be what he inherited from the people I predicted to be his great grandparents, and it never happened. There were too many unanswered questions at the end of the novel. Why did Robert stop talking? How did Robert "really" discover Beatrice's secret? Readers only got part of that story. Why did the author even bother to give Robert a French background? The ending instead focuses on how Marlowe discovers Beatrice's story. The story line would have made more sense if Robert's obcesssion with Beatrice was because of his belief that he needed to avenge the wrongs commited against a newly discovered grandmother.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Super long, I used this book as my beach read. I personally enjoy multiple storylines, I appreciated the way this one was woven together.
Book_and_recipe_Examiner More than 1 year ago
Robert Oliver, a divorced, middle aged painter who tries to stab a painting of “Leda and the Swan” at the National Gallery of Art. Andrew Marlow, his new psychiatrist, who can learn nothing of Robert’s past from the silent man himself, leaving the doctor to question Robert’s ex-wife Kate, his former student and lover Mary, and even other artists, to solve the mystery of Robert’s obsession with a young woman, also an artist, who died 40 years before Robert was born. Beatrice de Clerval, a young French painter, who is woven into the story sporadically as she tells of her affair with her uncle-in-law and the pursuit of her artistic talents. These are slowly revealed to us in letters which Robert Oliver has allowed his psychiatrist to read. To help Robert, Andrew must unravel the mystery of Robert’s passionate love for a long-dead artist, how he came about those letters, and what made him angry enough to try to stab this seemingly random painting. The interconnectedness of all these modern-day artists entangles with that of much older ones from pasts Marlow must untangle as he travels across continents and secret histories to understand and save the tortured mind of a brilliant, attractive artist.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Second book by Elizabeth Kostova that I've read. Great story line
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this after reading The Historian. I am by no means an arts appreciator, but even so, the suspense and writing style kept me glued to this book.