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