The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

The legend of Dracula, the vampire who inspired so many stories, gets a new makeover in this lengthy novel by American writer Elizabeth Kostova. At a little over 800 pages in the paperback version, Kostova spins a tale in which history and fiction blend together into a beautiful story that goes back and forth in time, from the reign of Vlad Ţepeș, the famous ruler of the 15th century Wallachia – a region on the territory of present-day Romania – and well into the 21st century.

Written from the point of view of one of the characters that remains unnamed throughout the book, the story has the distinctive feel of a journal. There are letters, together with snippets from old documents and even a sprinkle of Romanian words. The story starts in 1972, when the adolescent daughter of an American diplomat finds an old and mysterious book with the image of a dragon at its center, on a shelf in her father’s library. Prompted by her discovery and also by the contents of an equally mysterious letter, she asks her father about them and he, reluctantly, tells her the story of the fascinating objects and how they came to be in his possession.

The story is told in fragments, breaking off at intervals in which the author comes back to the present – a tantalizing technique that almost made me skip some pages. But I didn’t. Going back to his student days, Paul tells his daughter about his beloved professor Bartolomeo Rossi, who disappeared from his university office one night after he showed Paul an old book with the picture of a dragon at its center, and about the frantic search generated by this disappearance. The search took Paul to countries in Eastern Europe, and with the help of a group of scholars and accompanied on his journey by Rossi’s daughter, Elena, Paul was determined to find the missing professor and discover as much as he could about the mysterious book with the dragon image.

I thought this was a pretty long story that could have probably easily dispensed with a couple of hundred pages or so to make it more condensed. On the other hand, the amount of research done was quite impressive and I can understand why the author would want to share all that information with the readers. Exciting finds, a story within a story, letters and journeys into other countries, they all bring their own richness to the tale. I actually felt a pang of homesickness when I read about Romania (it’s been two years since my last trip home), and was pleasantly surprised to find details that were accurately described: the food and drink, the clothes, the names of various characters – it all felt familiar.

This is no gory tale – in brings into focus a lot of history but has very little scary elements. Yes, there are some encounters with vampires and even Dracula himself makes a few appearances but things are pretty tame in that department. I liked how the story focused more on history and the actual person behind the legend, Vlad Ţepeș himself – although descriptions of his cruelty (which I’ve learned of in school so there were very few surprises when I encountered them in the book), made me cringe a little.

I have enjoyed the book a lot. I finished it in the early hours of a Sunday morning, and then let it sink for a few days until the words came to me and I was able to gather them in this review. My companions in writing were a glass of sweet red wine and a beautiful melody from Elizabeth Kostova’s website, whose melancholy notes made me love it instantly and listen to it obsessively. You can find it here.

I’ve read this book for Carl’s R.I.P. reading event.

*Read in October, 2012

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15 Responses to The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova

  1. Vishy says:

    Nice review, Delia! Glad to know that you liked ‘The Historian’. I liked it very much when I read it. I don’t remember it being 800 pages though – I thought it was a shorter book. I can’t believe that my memory is playing tricks on me. I found it interesting what you said about how the book talks more about history rather than being about horror. I remember one scene where the father and the daughter are sitting in a cafe in Hungary (I think) and it is raining outside and I remember liking that scene very much. Reading your review made me feel nostalgic and makes me want to read the book again. I loved that melody on Kostova’s site. Thanks for giving the link. Thanks also for this wonderful review.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Vishy,

      It did not seem like a big book until I looked at the number of pages. My copy is short and chubby and worn. 🙂
      There are many historical references in the book and this makes the story even more fascinating. I was also glad to be able to share in the author’s enthusiasm when she wrote about her characters visiting Istanbul – it’s a truly beautiful city.
      I remember the scene you are talking about. It sounds so relaxing, just sitting in a cafe, watching the passersby and listening to a good story.

  2. Elisa says:

    It was a huge book and a little bit daunting and I remember it took me quite a few pages to really get into it, I forget what it was but I think once the action became present day I couldn’t put it down. Lovely review. 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Elisa,
      I found the action rather slow paced at times but it was good overall. I enjoyed the story a lot. Thanks for your visit and for your comment.

  3. Caroline says:

    Wonderful review. I have this one here as well but… It’s very long.
    I really have a thing for vampire novels and would love to read many more… This sounds like a very intelligent variation of the theme.
    Thanks for the link. It’s beautiful site and haunting music.
    Why does my blog not look like that?

  4. Caroline says:

    I wanted to add that I ike the photo a lot as well.
    The book and that dark deep red wine go together so well.

    • Delia says:

      I love vampire novels too, and this one was good, in spite of the fact that there’s not much vampire activity in it. The book is definitely a chunkster.
      I like that site as well and the music too. It actually helped me finish the review and the wine wasn’t bad either. 🙂 Wouldn’t it be nice to have some musical background to stories… it’s an idea I’d like to explore one day but first I’ll have to write the stories.
      I hope you get to read the book one of these days.

  5. Rachel says:

    I’m glad you liked The Historian. I enjoyed it too. I agree that it was a bit long, though! I found it interesting that she was able to make the book part travelogue and part story…it really brought to life the different places visited!

    • Delia says:

      More fans of The Historian! Welcome!
      The travel descriptions were an interesting part of the story. Just reading about them made me want to go on an extended trip through Europe. 🙂
      Thanks for dropping by and for commenting.

  6. Jenners says:

    Sounds like a new genre — historical horror! ; )

    • Delia says:

      If you think about it like that, many vampire stories are actually historical horror. There was a lot of talk about old documents and historical facts in this book, but the action didn’t really happen that long ago so I’m not sure if the term could apply. Nevertheless, I like the term. 🙂
      Just out of curiosity, I typed historical horror in Google and the second result was for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I’ve had this on my shelf for ages it seems. Sounds like one I should be dipping into this winter.

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