After watching the TV interview and walking past it countless times on the Barnes & Nobel display tables, I finally caved and bought a copy of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is the culmination of ten years of research. It is a story about history, reaching back into the Middle Ages. But it is also a modern quest, initiated by a father and daughter, about the powerful myth of Dracula. This sensational novel is causing a world wide frenzy and is due to be published in thirty-seven languages.
That’s all well and good, but I’m going to say there is such a things as too much research. I’m impressed that Ms. Kostova did ten years of research for a work of fiction, kudos to her, but did she really need to include all of her research in the 676 page book?
There comes a point when historical tidbits do not help the plot, they simply become more things to wade through while trying desperately to follow the plot(s). I am reminded of Victor Hugo’s 20-page description of Paris in The Hunchback of Noter Dame (I skipped it and I don’t feel like I missed anything vital to the plot).
The novel is presented as an unnamed first-person account written in the year 2008. Ms. Kostova’s explanation of the nameless narrator is a “literary experiment.” The narrator is a historian whose father, Paul, unwittingly ended up searching for the vampiric Vlad. Although the narrator’s adventures begin in 1972, there are three distinct story lines narrated in parallel, alternating chapters:
•The narrator’s actions in 1972/1973 when at the age of sixteen or seventeen, she began to travel with her father through parts of Europe and, later, from Amsterdam to Southern France with an undergraduate from Oxford, Stephen Barley.
•Paul’s travels during the 1950s, when as a graduate student, he traveled (initially) to Istanbul and then parts of Eastern Europe in search of his mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who may or may not have been kidnapped.
•Professor Rossi’s own travels in Eastern Europe during 1930.
Much of the story is told through letters, excerpts from books and academic literature, and above all, the narrator’s reconstruction’s of stories told to her by her father. Details of the plot and of Dracula’s nature, motives, and history are slowly revealed.
The book has numerous settings all across Europe, many of which are complicated by Cold War tensions after World War II, the period when much of the action occurs.
The problem comes in when it gets tedious to follow all three plots at once. All the letters and narration are written in the first person: sometimes narrated by a 16-year old girl, sometimes by her father, sometimes by a varying first-person letter writer.
The book starts off interesting with a good balance of plot and history, and quickly takes a turn for the history as the narrator’s father goes off on his quest. The plot is still there, but it takes a back seat as Romanian history and the wanderings of Vlad the Impaler take over. Thrilling, let me tell you.
If the reader has paid any attention at all, some of the key plot points can be easily figured out well before they are revealed. This is sort of a let down.
When Gavin asked why I had put my book down in frustration, I explained I had figured out a crucial plot point about 100 pages earlier and the book was beginning to drag. You should not be able to skim the last 200+ pages of a book and still have a decent idea of what’s going on and how it is going to end.
It wasn’t until I was nearly through book I noticed the Reader’s Pick Guide Inside logo on the cover. I turned to the back and saw the Questions and topics for discussion. The questions reminded me of my high-school english teacher’s open-ended essays.
I also noticed the author had a suggested reading guide in the back as well. With so many historical tidbits, I half expected annotated footnotes, and a complete bibliography –after all, ten years of research went into this!
Over all it is a decent read, and if you can wade through the middle, the beginning and the end and the little bits of plot have some potential.