Review: Swan Song

Women’s Prize No. 14/16

Some might say it was a mistake to leave the longest title on the Women’s Prize list so close to the end, and those people would probably be right. Instead of getting the more daunting books out of the way early on and saving the best for last (as I usually prefer), I’ve been reading this longlist entirely in order of which titles are most readily available to me, a sensible but much less perfect system. Though I began Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song with ease and plenty of amusement, there were certainly days this past week when I wondered whether I was going to make it through the longlist- or even this particular title alone- after all. But I’m pleased to be able to say I’ve finally made it out on the other side, with only two titles left to go.

swansongIn the novel, literary wonder Truman Capote comes into fame after the success of his true crime novel, In Cold Blood. With his newfound wealth and influence, he befriends high-class socialites and other prestigious public officials. Briefly, he lives the good life of black tie parties, expensive lunches, Cartier watches, general renown, and oh so very much gossip. Things take a turn for the worse however, when he attempts to expose the secrets of his real friends in his magnum opus, a novel that drags the transgressions of high society members into the public spotlight in a way that seems more scandal than art. The six “swans” who felt most betrayed by Truman’s final (unfinished) work are given voice here as the author falls from grace.

“He thought it was art, Babe. What he did with In Cold Blood. Reportage as fiction.”

For about half the book, though not completely sold on the execution of what seemed to me quite an interesting premise, I was at least highly entertained. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, but I found them fascinating nevertheless. Greenberg-Jephcott uses an intriguing blend of narrative styles that I enjoyed, especially when the backstories of the swans are introduced. I’m also partial to the blending of fact and fiction; premise and personalities completely aside, I loved being able to find real photos of all the main characters. For these reasons, the first half of the book passed quickly and easily for me.

But about 250 pages through, those novelties were no longer enough to satisfy and I began to dwell so much more on criticisms- the first and foremost being that this book seems too long. It’s hard to say exactly what could have been cut, as ultimately I appreciated the stories and backstories of each of the swans (some more than others of course, but I can’t name a single one of the main six that I would specifically prefer to exclude), as well as most of the anecdotes from various points in Truman’s life. There were sections that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of name-dropping that I wouldn’t have missed if removed, but none of the actual content of the book felt out of place.

In the end, I think the element that made this story drag for me was the nonlinear chronology. The story jumps around in time, connecting “present” moments to glimpses farther into the past that are meant to add meaning or significance to what happens later. Though the years are noted in the chapter headers, the frequent switches left me feeling like I never knew exactly where I was in the story or where it was headed, if anywhere at all. Admittedly, the early promise of Truman’s demise gives the glamour an appealingly dark edge that a straight chronology would’ve lacked, but a more grounded format might’ve moved the story along with a stronger sense of purpose.

Speaking of purpose, let’s take a look at what this novel is trying to accomplish. At first glance, its a story of justice or perhaps revenge, with the plural narrative voice of the swans giving these outed women a chance at voicing their own side of events. Upon closer inspection, Greenberg-Jephcott goes to no pains to paint these women in any sort of positive light. I don’t need characters to be likable to find them compelling, but to feel invested in a story I have to be able to root for something. Instead, I found the women unapologetic (or unaware) of the selfishness and greed that Truman was so intent on exploiting. But on the other hand, the narrative never led me to feel that Truman was in the right for sharing what was told to him in confidence, either. I found him just as self-serving and misguided as his swans, which led me to wonder exactly what I was reading for if I didn’t particularly want either camp to “win.” This is a work of fiction, rather than an accurate history of events (though clearly a lot of research went into this book). If not for hard facts, and if not to stretch the “truth” into some more favorable or inspiring light than history provides, what’s the draw? After reading the entirety of Swan Song– all 467 pages of it- I still can’t give a solid answer.

“Because of who Truman was, that evening will always be perfect- nothing could hope to rival it. But because of who he became, it can never exist again. He has taken it with him, and for that, above all else, we can never fully pardon him. One cannot forgive the tainting of the sublime.”

Theoretically, I love the idea of this book. I love that the women’s lives aren’t softened to make Truman out to be a monster he wasn’t, and I love that Truman’s actions aren’t excused in a way that belittles the wronged women, no matter how much they may have deserved (or not) to have their secrets revealed. And yet for all its potential, Swan Song simply seems to lack an extreme or an excitement that secures it as a meaningful story rather than a gossip-riddled piece of once-and-done entertainment.

There’s a lot more I could say about this book- about the terrible words used to describe Truman, most often related to his short stature and homosexuality; about the odd juxtaposition of the narration referring to Truman throughout the book as “the boy,” even in his most adult moments; about the great potential of the plural narrative voice that I felt was ultimately not capitalized upon; etc. But the heart of the matter is that Swan Song felt to me like a book one reads for fun, and I just wasn’t having enough fun with it. It’s likely that readers with more knowledge of Capote’s work (I’ve only read In Cold Blood and watched the film for Breakfast at Tiffany’s so far) would take more from this reading experience than I did. I am more interested in reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and even Answered Prayers at this point, so I can’t say Swan Song was an entirely ineffective read, and nor would I want to. With some revisions, I could have adored this book. As it is, I felt that it simply didn’t live up to its potential.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had high hopes for this one after starting in with such a high level of amusement, but I just couldn’t maintain that level of interest through all 450+ pages. It certainly makes for an interesting addition to the Women’s Prize longlist, though; there’s an almost-supernatural moment toward the end with Truman and the swans that reminded me of Ordinary People– yet another similarity tying the longlisted titles into one big web.

In no particular order (I’m hoping to finish the longlist in time to rank my favorites and predict the shortlist later on), here are the links to my reviews for the other longlisted titles I’ve read:

Freshwater, Milkman, My Sister the Serial Killer, Normal People, Circe, An American Marriage, Ordinary People, Praise Song for the Butterflies, The Silence of the Girls, Number One Chinese Restaurant, The Pisces, Ghost Wall, and Bottled Goods.


The Literary Elephant


14 thoughts on “Review: Swan Song”

    1. I was a bit hesitant as well, but it didn’t end up at the bottom of my longlist ranking! If you do decide to pick it up, I think you’ll be able to tell early on whether or not it will work for you, as the tone and quality is consistent throughout. The ending is fairly obvious early on, so you’re reading for the journey- some will probably have a better time with it than others!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I agree; when it works I really like a non-linear chronology, but for me this one just didn’t come together. It has one consistent timeline broken up by the backstories of each of the swans (and Truman), but so much page time was spent on the backstories that the mental juggling didn’t feel like it had much payoff.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This is an excellent and balanced review! I’ve been reading this for ages and I’m not even halfway through, and I have to say it’s driving me nuts for the most part, but Greenberg-Jephcott is clearly a talented writer and there are some really strong elements. But yes, god, why is it so LONG?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I understand finding it frustrating- I think I was lucky to find it amusing for as long as I did. The writing definitely helped; this seemed to me like the work of a potentially great writer who maybe just didn’t pick a strong enough trajectory for a 400+ page novel. The premise really intrigued me, but without a willingness to take more liberties with the characters, it does unfortunately read an awful lot like historical gossip. But there are highs mixed with the lows, and I hope you make it through! (Especially since you don’t usually DNF!) Looking forward to your review of this one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That seems like a very fair viewpoint of this book. I think having that expectation when I started made it a more tolerable read for me than it seems to have been for others. I wonder if Greenberg-Jephcott had pushed this idea a bit farther and let go of some of the historical accuracy if it would have felt more worthwhile? It is going to end up toward the low end of my longlist ranking I’m afraid, though I did find it an ambitious attempt.


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