Book review Monday: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
Your long-awaited Book Review Monday is finally here, and is coming to you from Le Pain Quotidien in Notting Hill, London, where I am sitting with a really expensive iced coffee, a sparkling water, and the remains of a really good (but again, really expensive) salmon salad. London, turns out, is expensive. But lovely! I am so happy to be here. Anyway, last night I finally finished a book that I’ve been slowly making my way through for lo these many (read: two) weeks, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.
The Historian had been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time, and I can’t remember where I got it or why I bought it, but I think maybe my mom had recommended it to me? In any case, I had been avoiding it, because it was a ginormous paperback about vampires, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. But finally, a few weeks ago, I picked it up and began to read and was pleasantly surprised. The Historian is not your Twilight-style, sexy vampire story. It’s actually about Dracula — the original vampire — and the havoc he wreaks on the lives of several historians over several generations. The story is told from two perspectives: the principal narrator, a woman who is never named, tells a story that happened when she was a teenager in the 1970s, during which time she discovers the writings of her father, which relate a story that happened to him twenty-some years earlier, in the 1950s. The book switches back and forth between the two narratives, but mostly follows the earlier story of the narrator’s father, Paul, and his companion, Helen, as they try to chase down the body of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula) so they can put a stake through his heart and stop him from continuing his nefarious deeds (mostly, turning people into vampires). Turns out, Dracula is still alive (sort of) and well, going about his business and building an army of the undead (many of whom happen to be historians or librarians who study Dracula and learn too much). The problem is, no one knows where his tomb is, so Paul and Helen must figure it out by traveling through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, visiting monasteries and libraries, conferring with academics, and doing some good old fashioned grave robbing (or, at least, grave disturbing). It doesn’t spoil anything to tell you that the book ends with a showdown between the historians and Dracula himself.
This book was mostly an enjoyable read, but definitely dragged occasionally. One gets the sense that Kostova herself is a historian, or at least some sort of academic, because she finds it hard to resist packing the narrative with historical, factual detail, often at the expense of pacing. There were actually points during the book that I had to skim entire pages of dry historical background on various Dracula lore, and found myself wishing that Kostova had written a slimmer, quicker paced book. All of this was made more disappointing by what felt, to me, like a quite anticlimactic ending to the book (despite the aforementioned Dracula showdown). I also felt that the characters were not entirely relatable/well-developed, and two of the secondary characters, both elderly gentlemen, were essentially interchangeable with each other. The characters lacked some essential spice that would have made them stand out in the reader’s memory, or cause the reader to root for them.
However, the writing is very good, and I enjoyed the detail-rich descriptions of cities like Sofia, Istanbul, Budapest, and Bucharest. Kostova also has a particular gift for describing meals. I love it when a book tells you what the characters are eating, particularly when the characters are in exotic settings. My stomach especially rumbled when Paul and Helen sat down to burek in Istanbul. I love burek so much.
I’d recommend The Historian for anyone looking for a fresh take on an ancient vampire legend and people with an interest in history and/or who enjoy historians and academics as protagonists. It’s a long, slow read, though, so don’t expect to charge through it in a day, and it can be quite dry. If you’re looking for an addictive page-turner, this is not the book for you.