book review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott



SWAN SONG by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
Hutchinson, 2018 (UK)


Much like Swan Song‘s subject, Truman Capote, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is at times charming, at times vicious, and at times insufferable. Despite the fact that it took me over a month to get through this and I was complaining about it for a lot of that time, Swan Song actually does have a lot to recommend it. Its first person plural narration is particularly well done as Greenberg-Jephcott attempts to reclaim the voices of the women whose social lives Truman Capote effectively destroyed with the publication of his salacious story La Cote Basque 1965 (the first chapter of Answered Prayers, which was eventually published unfinished, posthumously). In stealing the real life stories of his close circle of friends for his planned novel, Capote faced extensive backlash and was unable to repair his lost friendships, which ultimately haunted him until he died. It could have been a gripping tale of betrayal and a searing commentary on the kind of symbiotic relationship with high society that both made and destroyed Capote’s career, but while it had its moments, it sadly falls short.

My first issue with Swan Song is how ungodly long it is, which naturally leads to all of my other criticisms, being that this book overstays its welcome in every conceivable way. All of Greenberg-Jephcott’s party tricks wear thin after not very long, the worst offense probably being Capote’s characterization – he’s constantly infantilized and reduced to a caricature in a way that starts to feel more spiteful than constructive after not very long. He’s referred to as ‘the boy’ even as a grown man, his height and voice are incessantly referenced, he’s described as ‘elfin’ or even more derogatory synonyms on just about every page, and after a while it’s like… what’s the point of any of this? The bottom line is established early: Truman Capote was capable of extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. This book just revels in the latter in a way that never convincingly dovetails with the voices that are purportedly being reclaimed with this retelling.

Because that’s the other issue at the heart of this: I love the concept of reframing a traditionally male-dominated narrative by using women’s voices – it’s a concept that’s carried through many of my favorite Greek mythology retellings quite soundly – but here it falls flat, because Greenberg-Jephcott never makes a convincing case for why this is a story that need reclaiming. A bunch of high society women have affairs and sail around on yachts and they’re betrayed by their close friend but… so what? This books feels like an elaborate revenge fantasy that’s so mired in gossip and cattiness that it loses its thematic heft.

But, like I said, it’s not all bad: Greenberg-Jephcott’s writing is lively and charming, the style is inventive (elements of poetry and screenwriting are incorporated), the research is admirable, and maybe it’ll appeal more to a different kind of reader, but I’m afraid I just struggled to care.

You can pick up a copy of Swan Song here on Book Depository.

21 thoughts on “book review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

    • You lucked out!!! I decided to read the entire longlist since I’d already read half of it by the time it was announced, but between this and Chinese Restaurant and Praise Song I’m just like… why did I do this to myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “this book overstays its welcome in every conceivable way” – that just cracked me up!! I read a particularly terrible review of this not long ago and it just sounded like an interesting concept badly executed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It REALLY is! I love the concept of reclaiming women’s voices and reframing male-dominated narratives but this ain’t it. I did have high hopes at the beginning because her writing style is very engaging but after 500 pages of that I am so glad to finally be free.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Geez, 500 pages seems like way too much for this story…it almost sounds like it started out well and then just got away from the author. There’s nothing worse than being glad you’re free when a book’s over!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Pretty much!!! I think I said this in another review recently but there’s a really specific kind of disappointment that comes from reading a book with an amazing premise that isn’t executed well.


  2. You finished! Congrats!! 🙂
    I completely agree with this review, especially re the “we” narration falling flat. I thought that was such an odd choice, to give these slighted women the role of retelling this story but then not to use that very interesting perspective to add anything new? I think I would have preferred more liberties being taken, even though the amount of research and historical accuracy that clearly went into this book is impressive in its own right. The pieces just don’t add up to a story worth this many pages.


  3. Great review! So true, every word. I wanted to like this book so much, but it was so. So. SO. LONG.

    “he’s constantly infantilized and reduced to a caricature in a way that starts to feel more spiteful than constructive after not very long”
    Yes, my feelings exactly. What an uncreative way to make someone not quite belong – pick on him for his appearance. *rolls eyes*

    Liked by 1 person

    • WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE SO LONG?? I think at a third of the length I could have really enjoyed this, not least of all because we wouldn’t have had to hear 50000000 variations of the same slurs used against Capote’s appearance.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Swan Song aged me 15 years.

        Yes, I would have been happy with it being a third, even half of the length… the story WAS interesting… for the first 200 pages.

        The slurs were the WORST.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It really was an interesting story! I wonder if The Swans of Fifth Avenue is better… not that I want to read about these women again any time soon.


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