The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

March 30, 2010

historian Plot summary (with spoilers): The Historian starts out in Amsterdam in 1972, where an unnamed teenaged Narrator finds a strange book in her father Paul’s study. The book is obviously old, and printed on vellum. It has no words on its pages, but does contain an elaborate woodcut of a dragon in the middle. When the Narrator asks Paul about the book, he reveals that it was left for him in his study carrel back when he was a graduate student in the 1950s.

From there, the story flashes back to the 1950s to show what the younger Paul did after finding the book. He took it to his these advisor, Bartholomew Rossi, who shockingly reveals that he, too, received the exact same book when he was a graduate student in the 1930s. After Rossi found his book, he surmised that it had something to do with Vlad the Impaler, known in fictional circles as Count Dracula. He began investigating that thread, and soon came upon evidence that led him to believe Dracula is still alive. Rossi says he will share his research notes with Paul at a later date, but when Paul returns, Rossi has mysteriously disappeared.

The subsequent action in The Historian jumps between these different time lines. First, we have Rossi traveling to Istanbul in the 1930s to find out what he can about Vlad the Impaler’s final resting place. Then we have Paul, later joined by Rossi’s daughter Helen, in the 1950s traveling all around Eastern Europe in search of his mentor and friend. And finally, we have Paul and Helen’s daughter, the unnamed Narrator in the 1970s, along with her companion Barley, who set off on a chase to find Paul, who in turn has once again run off to find Helen.

With the exception of the Narrator and Barley, all the characters are ultimately after information about Vlad the Impaler. They want to find his tomb to confirm that he is dead. If he isn’t, they mean to kill him with their vampire hunting kit. So throughout the entire novel, the author shares various anecdotes, both true and apocryphal, about Vlad the Impaler.

Liked:

  • The subject matter was inherently interesting. Come on, who wouldn’t be excited about the prospect of pinpointing Dracula’s final resting place?
  • At first, the time jumps were rather confusing and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But after I got used to things, I had no trouble keeping track of the action and figuring out who was doing what, when. I thought Kostova wove the three time lines together very well.
  • The characters were decent, particularly younger Paul and Helen, who were “on stage” for the bulk of the action. Sure, some of the thoughts and feelings Paul expressed as he fell in love were extremely cheesy, but whatever. I was able to overlook most of that stuff.

Disliked:

  • My biggest beef with The Historian is that there’s not much action in it! Because most of the events were told through letters, there was a heck of a lot of exposition throughout. Obviously, a great deal of a scene’s impact is lost when it’s told through a secondhand medium like a letter. I think this book would have been 10x better if Kostova had just gone into straight-up flashbacks instead of filtering all the action through old letters.
  • There were quite a few boring spots in The Historian that I had to fight my way through. For instance, the scenes with Helen’s mom were tiresome, as were some of the visits to old monasteries and Paul and Helen’s trip to that academic conference at Helen’s old university. Surely those could have been glossed over in order to pick up the pace?
  • I must have tuned out by the end of the book, because I don’t remember what those dragon books were all about. What were they meant to be? Were the people on the receiving end Dracula’s chosen ones? What were they chosen for? I really should pay more attention!
  • So Dracula kidnapped Rossi because he needed… a librarian?? Geez, who would’ve thought that Dracula was such a scholar. I thought that was pretty ridiculous!
  • Dracula’s death scene was rather anticlimactic. Here these characters have been chasing him for a total of four decades (1930s to 1970s), and there’s not even a decent showdown? Helen just fells him with a single shot? Sooo boring!

My Reaction:
I never heard of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova until a few weeks ago when I saw it on some Best of 2005 list or other, so I missed all the hype surrounding its release (which I only just read about on Wikipedia well after the fact). I therefore had no expectations going in, but I was still extremely disappointed. A Dracula book with a bunch of talking but no suspense, no tension, and no action? Pass. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply