Book Talk: THE HISTORIAN, by Elizabeth Kostova

cover, THE HISTORIAN via
The Historian
Elizabeth Kostova (Facebook)
Back Bay Books (2006), Paperback (ISBN 0316154547 / 9780316154543)
Fiction, 704 pages
Source: Purchased
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “In 1972 I was sixteen–young, my father said, to be traveling with him on his diplomatic missions. he preferred to know I was sitting attentively in class at the International School of Amsterdam; in those days his foundation was based in Amsterdam, and it had been home for so long I had nearly forgotten our early life in the United States. It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous. To begin with, I was motherless, and the care that my father took of me had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, so that he protected me more completely than he might have otherwise. My mother had died when I was a baby, before my father founded the Center for Peace and Democracy.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of-a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known-and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself-to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive. What does the legend of Vlad the Impaler have to do with the modern world? Is it possible that the Dracula of myth truly existed-and that he has lived on, century after century, pursuing his own unknowable ends? 

The answers to these questions cross time and borders, as first the father and then the daughter search for clues, from dusty Ivy League libraries to Istanbul, Budapest, and the depths of Eastern Europe. In city after city, in monasteries and archives, in letters and in secret conversations, the horrible truth emerges about Vlad the Impaler’s dark reign-and about a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive down through the ages.Parsing obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions-and evading the unknown adversaries who will go to any lengths to conceal and protect Vlad’s ancient powers-one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.

Comments: I began reading The Historian late in the winter of 2007. I set it aside that April–not long after I started this blog–with a bookmark stuck in at page 400-something. I’d spent too long with it to abandon it completely, but having just come upon the third instance of introducing completely new backstory material into the narrative, I was frustrated. I always intended to go back to finish it “eventually,”and thanks to Fizzy Jill’s #peeon, “eventually” came last month.

I won’t even try to “review” a book that I took a nearly six-year break from reading, and I have to admit that I hoped I’d find some new delight in it after all this time. However, not long after I picked up The Historian again, I remembered pretty quickly what had exasperated me about it and what had compelled me to make it through about 75% of it before exasperation won out. For me, this was a case of a whole that’s a good deal less than the sum of its parts. The novel frequently engaged me on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but in a nearly 700-page book, I need more than just engaging chapters to keep me going.

Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel can’t be faulted for ambitious reach. An unnamed girl’s search for her missing father brings her to discover his own similar quest, decades earlier, to unearth the truth behind his mentor’s mysterious disappearance…and all of it leads to Dracula. It’s an intriguing premise, but it’s too often weighed down by the volume of Eastern European historical detail that Kostova seems to feel is necessary to give the story authenticity. Most of the story is told through letters and documents: the girl discovers her father’s journals, which recount what was in his mentor’s journals, which recap older documents…and so on. (Those are the layers upon layers of backstory that drove me away from the novel six years ago,) I’m a fan of the epistolary novel as a form–although, in real life, I’ve rarely encountered letters and journals as well-crafted, informative, and detailed as the ones fictional characters seem to leave for one another all the time, and I think I resent that just a little–but it does seem to lend itself to “tell” as opposed to “show,” and I felt that The Historian fell into that trap too often.

The Book Blogs Search Engine connects to many other reviews of The Historian, but I want to quote this from Jennifer at Reading with Tequila, because it made me feel that my response to the book was validated:

“For me, The Historian was split right down the middle – 50% love, 50% hate. I loved the story. I couldn’t stand the way that story was told.

With any novel deeply based in historical lore, one expects a reasonable amount of vivid description to allow a complete picturing of the time period. The Historian is so very descriptive, it borders on obsessive. There was way too much information about exact architectural details, exact clothing descriptions, exact sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, etc. that while I felt right there in the moment with the characters, the pace was dreadfully slow. …The thrill of the present-day hunt for Dracula often got lost as the reader was repeatedly dragged back into the 1500s for more Dracula history.”

The Historian has some very passionate fans, and I feel like I’m disappointing them by not joining their number. It would be easier if the novel were truly bad, but I want to make clear that it’s not that; it’s original, and the first half is strong (remember, it didn’t really lose me until well past the middle). If it had a smaller page count, more action, and less detail seemingly aimed more at actual historians than at fiction readers, we might have hit it off better. As it is, I’m not sorry we’re history, at long last.

Rating: 3/5
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