Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review - The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova


A few years ago, I read Bram Stoker's Dracula for the first time and I loved it. It was a very different book than I expected it would be - more the story of Jonathan and Mina Harker than Dracula, himself, though Dracula still hovered over every single page. When Elizabeth Kostova's runaway bestseller, The Historian debuted, I didn't have time to read it, though it sounded interesting. I liked the fact that it focused more on the history of Dracula rather than on his need to "feed" on the blood of living human beings.

The always unnamed narrator of The Historian opens the book in Oxford, England in 2008, then a page or so later takes us back to 1972, when she was sixteen and living with her diplomat father, Paul in Amsterdam, Holland. One day she makes an interesting discovery in her father's library - an ancient book bearing no text, but whose center pages depict a woodcut of a dragon with spread wings, outstretched claws, and a curled tail. Along with the book, she also finds a packet of yellowing letters addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor."

When the narrator asks her father about the book and the letters, he takes us back to the 1950s as he tells his daughter a sad, sad story of another, almost identical book that belonged to the author of the letters, Paul's dear friend and university advisor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi.

It's Paul's copy of the book and Professor Rossi's mysterious disappearance that set this story in motion. Paul launches a lengthy quest for Professor Rossi that takes him to France, Slovenia, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria (and perhaps a few places I've missed). He also joins forces with a strange woman of Romanian ancestry whose home is (conveniently) Budapest, though she's studying in the US. This woman, whose name is Helen, will play a pivotal role in both the resolution of the story and in Paul's life.

One of The Historian's biggest strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses, at least for some readers. Kostova has an uncanny ability to describe a place and set a mood, and apparently she loves to do so because she does so much of the time. For me, the description was beautiful and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I have to admit there was so much of it, it did become wearying at times. The following is just one example. It's the narrator's first impressions of the Slovenian countryside:

This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans - who left their walls here in their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast - saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father's car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.

I love travel, and I love traveling in Eastern Europe, so the surfeit of description really didn't bother me. For me, it was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book, though I do know many readers who disliked it and found it both intrusive and tiring.

Although I found The Historian almost wearyingly long, I really can't say what Kostova could have cut from her book, only that she should have compressed her story somewhat. The problem wasn't really the individual parts, but the sum of those parts. Too many times, one part was just like another part. It just took place in a different location.

The characters, too, had their problems. There was no tonal variety in their speech. Each one sounded just like the other down to his or her constant interjection of the phrase, "...how do you say in English...." then going on to supply the perfect (and perfectly unusual) English word. Now that was wearying and cloying.

It might surprise some readers, but in a book that centers on Dracula, Dracula, himself doesn't even put in an appearance until near the end of this almost 800-page tome. Although his appearance is, in my opinion, too brief and too devoid of power, Kostova's description of him is chillingly masterful. Dracula's scenes and set pieces are, perhaps, the very best in the book.

While I was impressed with Kostova's ability to keep three overlapping story threads going at the same time (Rossi's in 1930, Paul's and Helen's in the 1950s, and the unnamed narrator's in 1972) without ever leaving the reader disoriented, I was disappointed that the payoff for the reader, after slogging through such a doorstopper of a book, was so little. Kostova said she wanted to write a literary novel, but The Historian is definitely not a literary novel. This is a plot-driven book, not a character-driven one and it belongs squarely in the mainstream "historical thriller" genre. And really, for a book that's totally plot driven, there's far too little action in The Historian.

Despite my criticism, I really can't say I disliked reading the book and I really can't point to a specific reason why. Perhaps it's because I like travelogues and I love Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans. I liked being there, if only in my imagination.

In the end, however, Kostova's penchant for travelogue and excessive descriptive detail simply sucked the life out of her book faster than any vampire could such the life out of a living human being.

3/5 I "sort of" liked it.

Recommended: Only if you know what you're getting yourself into.

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