Review: ‘The Historian’

THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

  • Date finished: Oct. 21, 2013
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2005
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Fall 2013
  • Grade: C+
  • Thoughts upon finishing:

You know, I was really hoping to like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It’s about history! And vampires! And Eastern Europe! And academics! All these things separately are very cool. Combined into Kostova’s brick-like novel…not so cool.

OK, let me first list the things I liked about The Historian:

  • Subject matter: OK, vampires are kinda cool when we’re not talking Twilight. The “real story” of Dracula? I like it.
  • Presentation of vampires: I liked how Kostova treated vampires in The Historian. We’re not talking Twilight’s dreamy, emo sparkle vamps, nor are they the gory undead. They’re certainly frightening, but they can pass among us with ease – though they may leave you feeling uneasy.
  • The descriptions of all the glamorous European destinations (from Oxford to Budapest) really gave me the travel itch.

But that’s about it when it comes to the like department. I mean, really, Kostova…I tried. I tried really hard to like you. But I just couldn’t. Let me first explain the premise of this novel. It’s the 70’s and we’re introduced to a young, unnamed (is she unnamed? Why can’t I remember her name??) American narrator, who lives in Amsterdam with her diplomat father. Her mother “mysteriously” died when she was a baby. One day, she finds this weird book in her father’s office. It’s all blank except for this creepy picture of a dragon in the middle. Through a series of long-ass flashbacks, her father tells her the story of finding the book in grad school and embarking on this epic quest to discover the true history of the “real” Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler. Things become crazier when his academic adviser/father figure – who also found a similar book when he was young – mysteriously disappears, and the guy teams up with this dark lady who may or may not be related to Dracula. Meanwhile, we’re cutting back and forth to present day, when this girl is now trying to save her father from…something.

Phew. The story looks like it could work, but it just doesn’t. Culprit number 1) Kostova’s writing. Some may call it vivid, but truth be told, this book is terribly overwritten. The prose is exhausting, clunky, overly dramatic and entirely unrealistic. NO ONE talks or thinks this way:

Mrs. Clay was indeed home when we arrived. Barley stood with me on the doorstep while I searched for my keys; he was craning admiringly at the old mercantile houses and gleaming canals – “Excellent! And all those Rembrandt faces in the streets!”

It was not that I expected him to be up at this hour; if anything, he would still be sleeping – maybe snoring a little if he was lying on his back – trying to erase the cares of the day before postponing the grueling schedule of lectures and seminars and debate that lay ahead of him.

Ugh, really? Who thinks to themselves when they wake up feeling anxious in the middle of the night: “My father is sleeping in the other room…perhaps snoring if he’s laying on his back. And oh, what a grueling day he has ahead of him!” And who actually says out loud, “All those Rembrandt faces in the street“?? The entire book was written like this, and it nearly drove me crazy. In fact, if I didn’t invest so much time (the book is more than 700 pages long) and didn’t have this insane urge to figure out what happened at the end, I really wouldn’t care to finish. We all know how I feel about poorly written books.

The pacing of the book was also a little exhausting. At times, I tried to console myself that the historic mystery, coupled with the hyper-intelligent academics at the center, was kind of like a Indiana Jones movie…kind of. You see, Indiana Jones spent a lot of time beating people up, running away from bad guys and crawling through tombs. Our guys in The Historian spent all their time…at the library. Which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t a bad thing; with this kind of “mystery” and given who our protagonists are, it’s very realistic to imagine that most of the sleuthing would be done in books. But Kostova made sure to explain EVERY bit of research in all its exhaustive detail, which made me feel like I was actually reading a history book instead of a novel. Not too thrilling.

In fact, this book is like an academic or librarian’s wet dream, and I think Kostova uses her work to show off a bit. “Look at how smart I am everyone. I know how to look things up in the card catalog. And oh, let me write an entire paragraph on how titillating it is to feel the pages of an old book!” I mean, more than once did she explain in detail how “thrilling” it was for our protagonists to page through a history book and imagine that, wow, the people they were reading about were once alive. History is just so…real

I’m not saying that these thoughts aren’t true, I just wish Kostova didn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with them over and over and over again. I will say it was kind of funny reading (in great detail, of course) about these folks using libraries for research. I’m taking a reference course right now, and I swear, some of their dialogue felt like it fit right in with my textbooks. “Here I am, using a bibliography to find a list of books about such-and-such. Hey, let’s go to the card catalog to find the cataloging data and do some cross-indexing!” Plus, we eventually learn that the bookworm-at-heart Dracula’s “master plan” is to disseminate as many of his evil books into the population as possible, turning librarians and archivists all over the world into his bespeckled, poorly-dressed minion army. Librarians as vampire targets? Uh, cool, I guess.

And the last bad thing I’m going to say about The Historian before I wrap up (sorry for being such a negative Nancy but I have so many FEELINGS!), is…the ending. Are you serious Kostova? Let me just save you the trouble: the book ends as you think it might. “Dracula is dead…or is he?? DUN DUN DUN!” Ugh.

Back of the Book:

Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental  proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.

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One thought on “Review: ‘The Historian’

  1. Pingback: Review: ‘Dracula’ | Paperback Fool

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