Monday, September 20, 2010

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

For a book lover, I really am remarkably out of touch with what is going on in the book world. I almost never go into a bookstore that sells new books, most of my weird reading list (with the exception of my book club and my western canon project) comes from garage sales, thrift stores, or things that my nice friends lend me, and I don't read the New York Times Book Review or often even know if one of my favorite authors has come out with a new book. So, when I saw this copy of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was a dollar at the library book sale, I decided to go for it. I'm an archivist, so I like historians, and I also like really long books and am not averse to small doses of vampirism. Little did I know (until, actually, a minute ago when I skimmed this insanely comprehensive Wikipedia article) that the rights to Kostova's debut novel earned her a $2 million paycheck, and that, thanks to a hefty advertising budget, this was the first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestsellers list in its first week of publication. And all thanks to a certain runaway bestseller called The Da Vinci Code that got publishers all hot about historical mystery/adventure books.

I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but from what I've read about it, Kostova's novel has to be the better written of the two. This 650 page novel is told through a series of letters, diaries, remembered stories, folk songs, historical manuscripts, and journal articles. Our narrator, a middle-aged historian in the present day, pieces together the story of her teenage years in the mid-1970s, her father's grad school days in the 1950s, and her father's adviser's youthful research in the 1930s. All three characters become enmeshed in a never-ending cycle of obsessive research on Vlad Ţepeş aka Vlad the Impaler aka the historical Dracula, and in particular a desire to find the location of his grave. As historians, they naturally don't believe in superstitious notions like vampires, but after finding a very old bound volume containing nothing but blank pages with a woodcut of a dragon and the word Drakula in the center, their researcher brains take over. And they make rapid progress, quickly setting aside their real research projects, chasing down one lead after another, and traveling to distant countries to find another clue to the whereabouts of Dracula. And then: things start getting weird. They see an odd looking broad shouldered man following them. Their pets and friends start dying. People with bite marks on the side of their necks tell them that they should stop their research. And ultimately they are personally threatened by the big D. himself.

One by one our historians take the hint and stop researching Dracula. And one by one the next person in the chain discovers the book and picks up the research.

I was expecting to do a lot of cringing whenever the characters went to a library or an archives, because usually historical research in fictional books or movies is not portrayed very realistically. Kostova, on the other hand, gives us a book where historical research looks pretty familiar: no characters steal books or manuscripts from a repository; rare documents are treated with respect; the research takes a very very very long time, nothing is all in one repository, and plenty of documents just never made it into a collection at all. Big thumbs up on her research knowledge!

In the book the characters do a lot of traveling: from Oxford to Harvard, all around Eastern Europe, to France, Istanbul, Hungary, Bulgaria. The first 100 pages or so read more like a travel guide than a novel, and while it is clear that Kostova has really been to the places mentioned in the book, her descriptions of the sights and sounds of Europe are a little overblown and take away from the drive of the narrative. Once she gets going, however, the plot picks up and the last 100 pages are very exciting and bring us to a satisfying conclusion.

This isn't the best thing I've ever read (there is not a lot of variety in the characters' voices, it could use some tightening up, and sometimes her pacing is off), but is a fun read and the historical look at Vlad the Impaler, the fall of Byzantium, and the rise of the Ottoman empire is almost more exciting than the actual vampires. And there are some of those, including a character referred to as the "evil librarian."

If you want lots of sexy vampire action, this book is probably not for you, but if you have a little patience and a love for historiography, then it don't let its bestselling nature scare you away.

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