10 July 2011

The Historian

History grad student Paul has a relatively mundane life, which is sort of a given when you're working on a doctoral thesis about Dutch merchants in the 17th century. Nevertheless, as often happens in novels, his life--and the danger quotient involved in it--changes drastically after he finds an unusual book that may be connected to the infamous Transvylanian ruler Vlad Tepes, better known to millions as Dracula. Paul's discovery triggers a desperate hunt throughout 1950s Eastern Europe for further information on the deadly, mysterious Tepes, with the former accompanied by a mysterious anthrolpology student named Helen and a ragtag team of scholars that he meets along the way.

I've been meanming to read Elizabeth Kostova's mammoth debut novel, The Historian, for quite some time. I've had several people recommend it to me. The description that usually accompanies it is "This is a real vampire novel, unlike Twilight." I'm not entirely sure I'd characterize this novel as the next best thing in vampire literature--I'm a diehard Bram Stoker fan--and I did find Kostova's book a bit uneven and flawed, but, nevertheless, I still enjoyed it.

Kostova uses letters and diary entires to relate much of her story, much as Stoker did in Dracula. I enjoy this approach to literature, and, overall, I think Kostova did a good job of pulling it off. The story flowed fairly well, though I did notice that her characters lacked tonal variety. All of their letters sounded as if the same person wrote them. They all also share the somewhat unnerving tendency of writing long, detailed letters to each other, even when the letterwriter is in mortal danger or just a bit of a hurry. One thing that Kostova excelled at, in my opinion, was her description of the many settings that the characters encounter in their travels. She has a knack for creating atmosphere, and, having just returned from Europe myself, I enjoyed the way she recreated locales from across the continent. The fact that the main characters were historians and spent a considerable amount of time in archives and libraries also did my nerdy heart good. I found Paul and Helen to be fairly likable protagonists--yay for nerds!--though I think my favorite character has to be a vampire librarian that pursue the pair. (He's the inspiration for my tweet a few weeks ago that read "I VANT TO SORT YOUR BOOKS!" Ahem, pray tell, why are you staring at me?)

As much as I enjoyed Paul and Helen, I had trouble liking Paul's daughter, whose story occurs is intersected with his adventure with Helen. She just struck me as completely devoid of any individuality or distinguishing characteristics. Fortunately, her story was subordinate to Paul's and Helen's, so that subplot, though it formed a sizeable portion of the book, wasn't too distracting for me. My biggest problem with the novel is some of the plotting. I think Kostova did a nice job of maintaining my interest through 640 pages--no small feat--but sometimes she took the easy way out and relied on contrivances and coincidences to advance the story. I'm sorry, but the characters acknowledging that their highly unlikely and fortuitous meeting that garned them lots of wonderful information about Dracula was a coincidence doesn't make the meeting any less of a coincidence that smacks of lazy plotting, especially when that formula is repeated throughout the story. There was also one particular aspect of the ending that bugged me as a bit too far-fetched. (I refuse to reveal it here to avoid spoilers. If you've read The Historian and want to argue or commiserate with me, PM me. I'll force you to hear me whine digitally. ^^)

I have seen discussions of the book where readers have complained that Dracula, in the book, is not scary. I agree with that description of him, but I don't necessarily see it as a flaw. He is creepy and a bit eerie, which is what Kostova intended according to interviews she's given, but he's also a bit more complex than how he's usually portrayed, something that I enjoyed.

I'm hesitate to unequivocally recommend this book, for the reasons I mentioned above, but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this read. If you can look past some of the flaws, you'll find a nerdy adventure with some creepy overtones and an inventive take on the Dracula story.

Next Time: I have no idea. Consider it a delightful--or not so delightful--surprise.


This Week In Literary History: 9 July 1918: William Faulkner, one of my absolute favorite authors, joins the RAF to fight in WWI, though he didn't finish training in time to see combat. The war shaped literature and society for the next couple of decades, as people tried to cope with the fallout of a modern war, especially the truly horrifying number of casualties. In fact, as evidence of the widespread impact of the war, just the day before Faulkner joined, his future rival Hemingway was wounded severely on the Italian front.


  1. I really should finish reading this. From what I remember of what I have read, this book has a slight Di Vinci Code feel to it (but is much better). You seem to back up that feeling here. What do you think?

    Also, since you like book suggestions, have you read On the Jellicoe Road? Or anything else by Melina Marchetta? As Australian authors go she's up there with MArkus Zusak, I may even like her more. On the Jellicoe Road is one of my favourite books and I reread it last night. It's YA fiction and can easily be read in one day and I would love to hear what you think of it.

  2. I remember waiting some time for you to finish this, before stealing it and reading it. I did quite enjoy it, though.

  3. Penguins, I must confess that I've never read the Da Vinci Code, but I saw that other people have described The Historian as similar, so I think you're onto something.

    I have not read On The Jellicoe Road. It's funny you should mention it because last week I was organizing a young adult book club at the library. They had to read books from Australian writers, and one of the catalog suggestions was that book. I think someone checked it out. I need to snatch it from her when she returns it. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

    The Chairman, spoken like a true sibling. :)

  4. This book has long been on my list of book to read for awhile. And I do mean quite a long time.

    I'm just not reading as much as I used to. I think it's because I've been reading a lot of series lately, and I'm on to the last books and don't want to finish them and the series, or worse, have to wait for the next book to come out. Wow. Did that make any sense at all? (:

    To clarify that point (or possibly make it even worse), I am still reading; it
    s just that I've been reading magazines and internet articles more. Especially the internet. I never knew how much it had to offer me!

    But I am trying to get back to reading all my books.

    Another facet of the diamond that is my reading life is that I'm trying to stop buying books and start getting them from the library more. Which goes back to the series issue, I can get the books that are already out at the library, but I don't want to wait for the newer book.

    Yes, yes I am a true American who needs instant gratification. :P

  5. Ah, I feel your pain! I've been into reading series lately, too. I feel like I will only have time to do that during the summer and will forget the characters if I go long stretches between reading books in the series, so I try to speed through them, which isn't very wise.

    Hehe You could do what I do--order the book from the bookstore and still check it out from the library, so you have a copy to read while you wait for yours to come in. (I did that with Atonement.)

  6. (Comment from the last post-YAY!)

    That sounds like a good idea, I'm going to have to try it. :)