Review: The Historian

The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova

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I’m not sure where I picked up the recommendation for this–judging by its placement in my book recommendation journal, I seemed to have picked it up in England, probably in a Waterstone’s. My brother has a copy, which I almost read about two years ago, but I didn’t. The story appealed to me–from the inside flap, it sounded like a thriller about a family torn apart by studying Dracula.

Let me tell you, it failed to deliver.

The Historian is the story of an unnamed young American girl (seriously, we never learn her name) living with her father, Paul, in Amsterdam in the 1970s. A curious and serious student, she discovers a mysterious book in her father’s library–a very old book with a single image of a dragon in the center. She asks her father about it, and with that question, she goes down a twisted path of Dracula scholarship that has touched and harmed her family’s history for years.

That makes it sound more exciting than it truly is. The Historian has a lot of problems, the most glaring being the faulty structure and laboriously slow pace. While our unnamed heroine is ostensibly our protagonist, the bulk of the novel (and I mean bulk) focuses on her father’s pursuit of Dracula after the kidnapping of his beloved mentor in 1954. However, this massive narrative is fed to us by the heroine reading his letters as she seeks him on the Continent. With the massive amount of information Paul has squeezed onto letters, surely a journal would work better? The heroine is constantly reading letters, and her father is constantly quoting documents in his letters. On top of it all, it’s totally unbelievable that the massive narrative Paul contributes was written in a hurry over several letters, due to the sheer size and detail. To be honest, the heroine does so little, I’m curious as to why this novel isn’t about Paul.

It’s also terribly slow. Part One is understandably slow, as consists of Paul telling the heroine the start of his story, but Parts Two and Three are equally slow. While the history behind the real Count Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) is fascinating, Kostova stretches it out, as if she’s done too much research to waste. She devotes loving time to the scenery, and does have a knack for description, to be fair. There are some descriptions that are quite lovely. Too few are the scenes were the characters are in danger from supernatural forces or confront supernatural forces, and you get the feeling Kostova doesn’t much care for such scenes–which begs the question, why did she write about vampires? The climactic battle lasts three pages. In a novel six hundred and forty-two pages long. Instead, Kostova leads the reader on a sort of tour of important literary archives throughout Europe.

There’s also the problem of the protagonist. By sheer page volume, Paul is the rightful narrator of this story, but for some reason, the unnamed heroine is our protagonist. Even Kostova seems to forget about her, spending chapters on Paul’s story before occasionally checking in on her and her travel companion, an English student named Barley. She’s fairly useless, to be honest, and a bit unbelievable. While she has a crush on Barley, they suddenly leap into bed towards the end of the novel, leaving me very confused.

There’s also the frustrating deal about her name, which is skipped over. Paul eventually mentions her birth in his letters, but writes that they named her after her maternal grandmother… who is never named. She feels superfluous, and, despite her supposed brilliance, is a bit thick. When her father mentions a woman named Helen in his story, she thinks it is a nice name because it was her mother’s name, instead of wondering if Helen is her mother. It’s frustrating!

Paul fares better–he’s a decent guy trying to save his mentor, and becomes fascinated by the story of the living dead involved. Helen, Paul’s companion on his quest, is also much better than the girl–a serious, cunning Romanian woman who slickly argues with, and dispatches of, vampires. Helen is great, as is her family history. Helen writes a series of letters to the unnamed protagonist, which feel a bit out-of-character with the strong, young woman we met earlier. But that stumble hardly kills her entire character. Their quest is more interesting, although still hurt by ponderous scenes about the letters of monks and keeping their Soviet escort distracted by a nubile young woman. (Yeah, that actually happens.)

The story itself is quite interesting, especially Dracula’s motivation. It just takes eons to get to the plot points. While the story is good, the pace cripples it. You become no longer surprised by interesting moments, but relieved something finally happened.

But Paul, Helen, and the story can’t overcome all of The Historian’s shortcomings, especially its fatally flawed structure, crippled pace, and uninteresting main character.

Bottom line: The Historian is fatally wounded by its flawed structure, laborious pace, and frustrating main character. While there’s a fairly good story buried underneath it all, I would only recommend this to the most devout of Dracula fans.

I rented this book from the public library.

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