Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had a copy of this book sitting on my shelf practically since the paperback release. It had all the elements of a book I might enjoy, but I was worried the book in my head was more interesting than what was on the pages. That's why this book was on my 2013 TBR Challenge. And, while it wasn't the book I imagined, it wasn't as terrible as I feared.

The Historian may, on the back cover blurb, be about a search for Dracula. Anyone going into it with the expectation that we meet Dracula and he's as sexy and fascinating as the modern zeitgeist would have you believe will be disappointed, though. This Dracula is secretive and hidden, and requires lots and lots of digging to find. The book tells three generations' worth of searching: the narrator's (she is never given a name), her father's, and his mentor's, Professor Rossi. There are three different love stories, too, each with a different ending. Love, according to this book, is best kindled in the midst of chaos, and fanned from afar.

The story opens when the narrator finds a strange book in her father's library, blank except for a woodcut dragon in the very middle. He reluctantly starts to tell her what the meaning of the book is, but cuts his story short when the unsolved mystery pulls him away unexpectedly. While she tracks him down, she reads his letters containing the rest of his tale, and where he relates that of Professor Rossi. Her father, Paul, once went in search of Rossi, helped along by the daughter Rossi refused to acknowledge, who also has ties to the Dracula legend. There are strong hints Rossi may have been kidnapped by Dracula, or by one of his agents.

The narrator receives the least attention, though it isn't until the close of her story that the narrative threads are tied up. She's telling her story from the 1970s, while Paul is traveling a postwar (and semi-Communist) Europe. Rossi, in the 1930s, finds the borders more open, but resources more elusive.

I know little of European history, even from this century, so the information within this book was all new to me, and fascinating. I have no idea how many liberties Kostova may have taken with true events, but I was able to follow her version of history, for the most part. The various political squabbles, the Ottoman influence, and the minutiae of history may have been a bit painstaking, but they were broken up enough that I felt they didn't kill the narrative tension. Rather, they added to it.

There is one aspect with which I know the author took liberties. She has "Gypsy" characters show up in the narrative. They're there to make dire proclamations about matters they could only discern magically. While the stereotypes of Roma as magical fortune tellers is a positive stereotype, it's no less ridiculous than the ones painting them as thieves, liars and child stealers. I was thrown out of the book by the appearance of these characters-as-set-dressing, and I wish Kostova had found a better way to bring mysticism into it, without reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

Overall, I was glad for a reason to stop putting this book off. Now I know, for myself, what kind of story it contains. Though it isn't the one I would've written (just thinking of all of that historical research makes me tired), it's a good story, and an excellent addition to the Dracula mythos.


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