Francine's Reviews > The Historian

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
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's review
Jun 05, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: modern-lit
Recommended for: Joy Macpherson
Read in October, 2008

I thought The Historian started out really well, but I felt that it lost something about halfway through (hence, a rating of only 2 stars). First, the positives: initially, the narrative was nicely structured, the themes were compelling, the writing was beautiful, the main characterization great, the pacing "just right". I'm a big fan of the epistolary, and this is a modern day version of it, replete with letters written by various characters from different time periods (each one adding to the story or peeling away another level of the mystery), a book-within-a-book, many letters-within-letters, a slew of diary entries, a host of post cards written by someone thought to be dead, even an entry from a journal article, and many, many confessions, both of the oral and written kind. I think the epistolary is one of my favorite literary forms because the reader gets a first-person narrative from various characters within a third-person setting. In a way, it makes it possible to "get into" or connect with a character's persona or mind in a way that a third-person narrative could never allow you to. And finally, I think I fell a bit in love with Eastern Europe - so much so that now I actually want to visit places I never would've dreamed of visiting in the past, places such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and even parts of Turkey.

However, about halfway through, I found that the novel did devolve into a series of grand coincidences (and I'm really not a fan those). I did not like how characters "conveniently" appeared to the main characters during their travels, people who knew a little bit of this and a little bit of that; I did not like how these secondary characters were always academics who were on a similar quest, who just so happened to have access to this book or that manuscript, or who could read this language or speak that dialect; characters who were always just one step ahead of whatever danger lurked around the corner. I also found that some of these secondary characters were oftentimes caricatures of stereotypes, and that was just annoying. The ending also left something to be desired. After a good amount of build-up (through ~850 pages!), I was quite let down by the vagueness of the last two chapters. It almost felt rushed.

The story itself was not scary; the fact that this has been (wrongly) cataloged under the horror genre is misleading since there is nothing outwardly terrifying, gory or sensationalistic about it (I'm not convinced historical fiction is the most appropriate genre either). Very early on, however, it did bother me that Kostova purposefully chose not to provide her heroine's name, and as the story progressed, that anonymity really ended up unnerving me and affected how I subsequently read the book. The narrative itself is really about two things: Vlad the Impaler and historians (and to a lesser degree, the process historians go through when researching a subject). And since one of the main characters - a budding historian - remains unnamed, to me, that added an unwanted mystery. Considering that historians try to uncover the truth, however ugly or fantastical or (in)significant that truth is, to me, the omission of something as simple as a name seemed unnecessary and even a bit contrived. The heroine (and ultimately, her father) became suspect to me, not only because there was a part of her that was inaccessible - a very basic part, one could say - but that it also made me question the motives of the author (both Kostova and the heroine, who was writing the fictional history book on Vlad). And while no one can truly ever know authorial intent, to me, holding back that piece of the puzzle only created a character who ultimately, in trying to uncover the truth, kept integral parts of herself hidden for reasons unknown to anyone.

Despite all this, there were enough positives that outweighed the negatives, and this contributed to my rating this book 2 stars (all in all, I thought this was a million times better than either Da Vinci Code or Pillars of the Earth).
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