Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

What if an evil leader with an infinite thirst for power -- such as Stalin or Hitler -- could live forever? This question arises in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, a bestselling novel that garnered a $2 million advance and sold the movie rights for seven figures before it even hit bookstores.

Vlad Tepes, better known as Count Dracula, was a 15th century Wallachian ruler who was legendary for his cruelty. This novel explores his history, then slips smoothly into fantasy, as it is revealed that Dracula -- true to the legends -- gained immortality by becoming a vampire.

The story unfolds in layers. First we meet the protagonist, a 17-year-old girl being raised by her diplomat father in Amsterdam in 1972. As she travels around Europe with her father, she learns about his past -- bit by bit. His story begins with finding a puzzling book printed with a dragon, while working on his history dissertation, which puts him on the trail of Vlad Tepes. We learn his story, which includes a journey through Europe during the 1940's, through their conversations and his letters. This is peeled back to reveal the tale of his mentor, Rossi, and his quest to learn the truth about Vlad Tepes. This, in turn, reveals more stories, including the mysterious disappearance of the protagonist's mother. Finally the reader finds herself at Dracula's tomb.

Following these characters on their travels, we explore France, Romania, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. What shines most in this novel, for me, is the author's knowledge of these settings and her skillful attention to detail. We can see the landscape, cities and people of Cold War Europe, vividly painted.

The writer also reveals knowledge of European history and of how historians work, as scholars search library archives, ask questions, and explore historic places. The history of the Ottoman Turks' conquering the Balkans, which foreshadows the brutal war that will take place there 20 years later, flows alongside the atrocities of World War II and communist oppression of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. I loved these layers of medieval and contemporary history.

I got into this novel expecting to love it, and it was worth reading for the history and the scenery. However, I felt a growing sense of disappointment toward the end. Unfolding the many carefully constructed layers of this long, slow-moving book seemed to promise both deep knowledge of the central characters and a spectacularly suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. Yet I never felt I really got to know the characters, and the conclusion felt hollow.

I also felt the novel lacked the mixed sensuality and sense of horror that should accompany a vampire story -- Kostova's vampires felt dry to me. Her Dracula was revealed to be a bookish egotist. I began to wish the author had left out the vampires -- intriguing as these mythical creatures are -- and just written a colorful travelogue laced with history. As it was, I was left with the anti-climactic sense that The Historian promised more than it delivered.

Rating: 3

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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