I was very much looking forward to this book. History and Dracula, suspense with a smattering of romance. Sort of. The Historian, the debut fiction novel by Elizabeth Kostova, was surrounded by massive hype such as "runaway best seller". Unfortunately, my reaction is wishing it had run right past me.
I feel like it took me a decade to read this book. And one of the distracting bits about the book is that the main narrator, the daughter of Paul and Helen, never reveals her name. We do find that she is named after Helen's mother, but we are also never given that name. Evidently this was intentional by the author. She called it a "literary experiment". I just call it annoying.
We begin this story in 1972 when Narrator Chick (this is now her name, "NC" for short) is 16 and living in Amsterdam with her father and a housekeeper/nanny named Mrs. Clay. Her father, Paul, is basically a diplomat sort who started a foundation called Center for Peace and Democracy which enabled him to do much traveling around Europe.
While Paul is out of town on business, NC is nosing around in his library, snooping on the top shelf and found a copy of Kama Sutra as well as a mysterious book full of blank pages and one woodcut image of a dragon. Within the dragon's claws is a banner with a single word, "Drakulya".
When NC reveals to her father that she found the book, that begins an oral recitation of his previous adventures.
Paul, NC's father, is a former Professor and Historian and his mentor Bartholomew Rossi was at one time also in possession of an empty book with a woodcut dragon. The exact same woodcut actually. Neither knows the source of these books as they both just suddenly showed up in their lives. Paul's was sitting on the table in the library where he was studying for his dissertation. He had gotten up to find something about Dutch merchants and returned to find the little book opened to the dragon.
At that time it was the 50's and Paul was a student at Oxford. He took his dragon book to Rossi, hoping he might have information on its origin, and as soon as Rossi viewed it he blanched with recognition. And that sets off another story that takes place in the 30's.
So what we have here are three distinct stories and timelines all interwoven by the same goal: Finding Dracula.
Shortly after Paul receives the book and shows it to Rossi, and Rossi hands over research papers of his own from when he first started on the trail after Dracula, Rossi goes missing. The only trace left of him is some blood on his desk. Paul panics and feels guilty, taking on the responsibility of Rossi's possible death or kidnapping because of showing Rossi the dragon book. Soon Paul starts having odd feelings and paranoia, like someone is watching him or following him. Perhaps warning him off from his pursuit. Paul ignores all the warnings and decides to find Rossi, hoping it's not too late.
In the library he spots a woman reading Bram Stoker's Dracula and Paul chats her up, finds her to be cold and off-putting and pretty much moves on until the next day when he returns to the library to find that all reference to Bram Stoker's novel has disappeared from the card catalogue and the shelves.
He then goes to the librarian and smiles his way into finding out the co-ed's address, the girl who had the novel the day before, so he can give her a call. One thing leads to another and come to find out this is Helen Rossi, Bartholomew's illegitimate daughter that he never knew existed.
She has some serious daddy issues. She believes that Bart abandoned her mother in Romania. Later, when Helen's mom had moved to Hungary to live with her sister Eva to have the baby there, Helen's mom had written Bart to tell him about the baby, but he wrote back saying he had no clue who she was.
So Helen is a wee bit bitter. And angry. Scowls a lot. She has chosen the course of also becoming a Historian so that she might one day outshine her famous father. She had caught wind of his interest in Vlad Tepes and vowed to find out more information and publish sooner, stealing his glory. So she joined the hunt with Paul. Along the way they get a little romantic, but it's in passing and never the main focus.
What we end up with is a history lesson on the Ottoman Empire, the Turks, the fall of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II and his own obsession with Dracula, and travel from America to England to Romania. Then Bulgaria, Hungary, more of Wallachia and Bucharest. Also a trip over to Istanbul, Paris, Brussels. Seriously, all over the place. Too many places. I got lost and it even came with a map!
I shouldn't be too surprised at the constant traveling because Kostova is a writer of travel books. And if you ever felt the need to know what a sunset smells like from a café in Istanbul or how the dawn light reflects off the crumbling stone of a monastery in Krasna Polyana then you will like this book.
You will also like this book if you are fascinated by the routes of medieval pilgrims and monks. And not just the routes, but the shoes they wore and the shapes of their noses.
Now, I don't want to sound like this book was complete shit. It wasn't. There were moments of enjoyment for me. It started off interestingly enough, but after about 30 pages I got bored. I kept at it, and it snagged me again around page 280. Lost me again at 500. Page 591 gave me a bit of "ooh, that was unexpected" and then immediately I became annoyed because how in the hell does someone who is being held captive by Dracula have the time to type out pages and pages of letters in a day or two?
Here's what we have: Dragon book, Professor Rossi disappears, Paul gets his own book, finds Helen, and pursues the Professor. Paul and Helen marry, have baby (NC) then Helen also disappears. At age 16, NC finds dragon book, insists on knowing what it is, Paul begins to tell her, makes a discovery in the library at Princeton then also disappears. NC finds note from Paul, her father, saying he has to go do something. NC fears the worst and takes off to find him. Everyone is disappearing and trying to find someone while also trying to locate Dracula.
He's still alive. Just in case that bit wasn't assumed.
NC ends up losing her virginity to a guy named Barley. What kind of name is that? Wimpy ass British name I think. There's some buggery involved in his prep school days I'm thinking.
There is a treasure of knowledge to be found in this book. The history and detail is magnificent. But there's too much of it. It distracts from the story to such a degree that there are bits I skimmed past until I found quotation marks. I started to sweat from flashbacks of high school world history class.
Also to be found within the pages is a judgment of the world by Vlad Tepes. Dracula admires men like Hitler and Stalin as well as events that have impacted people and nations with horror and negativity. Why vilify and fear a man such as Dracula in a world where we possess nuclear bombs? Wrapped in all of that is also a bit of metaphor for the Western world of Christianity versus the Eastern Muslims. Dracula battled in horrific relief against Muslims in his time and to this day he is hailed as a hero in Romania.
Following the theme of History, the characters are affected in large or small scale by historical events. Helen's family disappears after a revolution in Hungary in 1956. Paul is killed by a landmine in Sarajevo in the 90's. Another major character dies in the 80's of a mysterious blood disease. Terrorists attack Philadelphia in the present day
But even all the metaphors and allegories are buried beneath all of the endless rubble of boredom and dusty boot descriptions.
Another issue? No one seems surprised or disbelieving that everyone is running around looking for Dracula. Find out your college librarian is a vampire and a minion of Dracula? No problem, grab a Pepsi! All of the characters react exactly the same as everyone else. From highly educated scholar, to ignorant peasant, to shy monks—everyone is just fine and dandy with the vampire situation.
I have a strong inkling that this is the sort of book people will read and recommend to others, even if they believe it sucked ass. Why? Because it appears intellectual. It's one of those books. All that jam packed history and travel detail, it must be enjoyed! To not profess great love for this book could possibly lead to an embarrassing moment over chilled mojitos.
I have no doubt that some people will genuinely like this novel and all that it delivers. But I've said it before—I can't stand endless narrative. I want characters speaking and relating to each other. I don't think it would have hurt this book to be cut in half. At 676 pages it was just too much.
The Historian is considered a mystery full of suspense. Not a single time was I drawn in and worried about a shadow or the sound of footfalls on stone. I would not have been upset if I turned a page to find every character dead due to a house fire. Darn.
As it is, the ending is flat, uneventful and I felt cheated. At times during this book I was ready to stake my own heart just to get out of finishing it, but I kept at it and by the end of the last sentence I wished I had staked myself.
I recommend this book only to people I don't like.