Sparrow's Reviews > The Historian

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
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Aug 01, 09

bookshelves: monsters, punching-tour, reviewed, motherless-daughters
Recommended to Sparrow by: Laura Rice said not to read it. She was right.
Recommended for: Henry James Fans
Read in July, 2008

** spoiler alert ** You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel in which Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to catalog his extensive library of antique books. On the other hand, after finishing The Historian, and its detailed Vlad the Impaler research, I’m willing to consider that threat as akin to impalement. If Kostova’s references to Henry James did not reveal her as an admirer of his, then its sprawling prose, vague plot, and sexually confused characters would have. While imitation of Henry James is not enough in itself to make me wish undeath on an author, it sucked the blood out of this adventure.

Kostova writes The Historian in epistolary form, primarily through letters from a father historian to a daughter (presumably) historian. The greater part of the book, however, focused not on this father-daughter team’s desperate search for family member(s) and Dracula, but on the obscure history of Vlad Tepes, the historical figure who inspired the legend of Dracula, and on the geography of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey during the Cold War. If the Travel Channel™ was ever looking for someone to host Istanbul on a Budget 1980 or Passport to Monasteries Behind the Iron Curtain, Kostova would be their woman. Whether the history and geography is true or not, the sheer volume of trivia padding this book and the work it had to have taken to put it all together is confounding.

Even with the impressive research, this story is Scooby Doo with no Scooby Snacks. Dracula would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky historians! Dracula and his henchman, the “evil librarian,” don’t plague society or cause panic. Rather, they make appearances in goofy disguises in libraries and cafes to give books and other clues to especially promising young historians, inspiring the recipients to begin insatiable quests to find out more about this Dracula fellow. Then, Dracula inevitably shows up again to slap people around a little, so that the historians will be too afraid to continue their research. Once, after giving a historian a book to start him on his vampire studies, Dracula disguises himself as “a stranger” and buys that historian a drink called, “whimsically, amnesia.” Bet you can’t guess what that does - all that research down the tubes! Stop the mind games, Dracula! Not to be deterred by Dracula’s or the Evil Librarian’s threats, the historians continue to stalk their prey until the reader would pity Dracula (if he weren’t annoying), because he is ultimately only trying to build a book collection and a gang of faithful research assistants.

In painful detail, Paul, the central historian/vampire slayer, as he tells his daughter the story of his search for Dracula, also tells of falling in love with her “mannish” mother, Helen. The consistent descriptions of our heroine as “manly” only hint at Paul’s sexual confusion, which becomes most apparent when he meets his rival, Helen’s ex-boyfriend, a Soviet spy. Paul describes this meeting to his daughter in chapter 38. “’What a pleasure to meet you,’ [ex-boyfriend] said, giving me a smile that illuminated his fine features. He was taller than I, with thick brown hair and the confident posture of a man who loves his own virility – he would have been magnificent on horseback, riding across the plains with herds of sheep, I thought.” Except for the word “virility,” I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading that description. If the author of the quote had been a man, I would encourage him to openly write gay characters rather than making his characters marry to hide their sexuality. From the author’s picture on the dust jacket, I see that she is Madame Bovary, so the description fits.

It is true that because of the vagueness of the plot and the epistolary structure, entire chapters and characters could be cut from this book without losing any story. Beyond its rambling descriptions, however, The Historian flounders as a vampire story. Psychological conflict adds complexity to most vampire stories, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when Mina, formerly a protagonist, becomes bloodthirsty. Thirst is the most basic human experience, and all vampires started as humans. Theoretically, thirst (or, more broadly, desire) could become evil in anyone; and, therefore, of all monsters we most easily identify with vampires. In The Historian, however, I am left with the impression that if those historians left poor Dracula alone, he would have just kept collecting books. It was ultimately the research and study, not Dracula himself, that took the historians away from their loved ones and almost destroyed them. From where I’m reading, The Historian is solid evidence of what most high school kids could tell you: too much study is both boring and potentially bad for your health.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 82) (82 new)


Miriam "You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel, and Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to catalog his extensive library of antique books."

LMAO. I just finished grad school and that sounds like a serious threat to me.


Tulsi He he he, I loved this book, but I did laugh at that first line too.


Christopher Highline HAHAHAHA!!! That is hilarious!


Sparrow Thanks everybody! Very kind . . .


Sparrow Thanks, Chandra! It's funny what a big difference audio can make . . . for better or worse. I agree that the descriptions of Istanbul and Budapest were the highlights of this book, but even then I couldn't help but wonder if the books or personal experiences she used for research were even more interesting than her summary of them. I just finished Water for Elephants and had a similar problem with it. I think I just need to stay away from historical fiction. History, yes. Fiction, yes. When combined, I don't think they do each other any favors.


Sparrow Oh, those are only my most recent experiences with the historical fiction problem. I agree with what you're saying, though, and it did remind me how much I love the book (not movie) The English Patient. Maybe my problem is with writers who overreach or try to be impressive, rather than enjoying their story. I think historical fiction tends to lend itself to that problem, but you are definitely right that not all writers who write out of their own time and place are so awkward.


message 7: by Brad (new)

Brad You know why books like this need to be written? So that we can have hilarious reviews like yours, Meredith. Hilarious!

p.s. I'm with you on The English Patient


Sandi I love your review!!! You probably should mark it with a spoiler warning because you gave away the completely anti-climatic ending. But, if someone is slogging trough it only to find out what happens, a spoiler would save them a lot of disappointment.


Sparrow Thanks, Brad and Sandi! I'll have to think about the spoiler warning, Sandi. Is it really evil of me to want to spoil books I hate for people? Probably. Hmmm. Maybe I could write a really great vampire novel about it. This also brings up the question of whether it is possible to spoil an ending as anticlimactic as this one. Out of respect for literature in general, however, I will take your advice.


Sandi I don't know if you can spoil something that's already rotten.


Sparrow Good point and good pun!


message 12: by Chad (new) - rated it 2 stars

Chad Sayban Your wonderful review actually almost made the pain of reading this book worth it...

...almost. Nicely done!


Annie I just read somewhere they have bought the movie rights to this book.


Sparrow I heard that too. I think it will make a MUCH better movie. I hope Mike Meyers is in it.


Annie LOL!!! Just you saying "I hope Mike Meyers is in it" is already better than anything i thought of the book... soooo loooong and boring, i didn't even get halfway through it.


Sparrow No kidding. But it kind of crosses that line, where it's sooooo boring that it becomes a parody of itself. The part where Dracula shows up at the tea shoppe in Istanbul is pretty amazing on a lot of levels (e.g. homoeroticism; no point; and I think there's something funny about tea; but I don't remember).


message 17: by Rachel (last edited Oct 10, 2009 10:59AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rachel LOL! I love your review!! I hadn't thought about the sexual ambiguity while I was reading. So funny.

I actually enjoyed it but because:
A. I listened to the audio, and that seems to be the consensus - people who listened to it enjoyed it more. There was a full cast of characters (with accents!) reading and even some spooky music.
B. I saw it had very polarizing reviews on here, so I didn't expect much out of it anyway.

I saw issues/holes in it as I was listening, but I accepted it for some fun, chase-the-mystery fluff.

sidenote: Glad to see someone else didn't like Water for Elephants either.


Sparrow It definitely seems like audio is the way to go on this one. They must be some really amazing readers! I think all the characters had really nasal voices in my head. I'm glad it comes off as a chase-the-mystery on audio. It definitely didn't seem adventuresome to me on paper.

Yeah, this one and Water for Elephants both had that awkward historical fiction feel of the characters being too self-aware. Kind of like Chandra was saying above. Like, "Well, Sally, in 1930, when we're living right now, we don't have things called 'computers', but we do have what is going to be called the 'Great Depression', but we don't know it's called that yet, so act surprised later when you find out." Both books have the older narrator reflecting back on his youthful exploits, and both are male narrators written by women. The concepts are so elaborate that they lose all specificity and personality. On the other hand, I'm not out there sticking my neck out writing books, so it's pretty easy for me to criticize.


Susan Nice review and I agree with what you wrote. I was lucky enough to listen to this on audio so was able to daydream away the history and family tree passages. Especially the particularly long one about Vladdd....zzzzzzz


message 20: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen "even with the impressive research, this story is Scooby Doo with no Scooby Snacks. Dracula would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky historians."

Best line of the whole review- and as an avid Scooby fan,I agree!


message 21: by Tammie (last edited Apr 26, 2010 07:28AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Tammie I enjoyed reading your review of this book. I agree with you almost completely. The only thing I disagree with you about is that the characters were sexually confused. I didn't see it that way at all.


Sparrow Jen wrote: "Best line of the whole review- and as an avid Scooby fan,I agree!"

Ha! It's been a while, but I remember having a premonition of the Scooby thing partway through the book. Then, when they all showed up in the cave to get Dracula, I had to laugh. But also cry a little bit. I don't think that was the effect the author was going for.

Tammie wrote: "I enjoyed reading your review of this book. I agree with you almost completely. The only thing I disagree with you about is that the characters were sexually confused. I didn't see it that way at all."

Really? I thought the dad was so much more into the dudes. And how he kept describing the mom as really manly? That's why he liked her - her manliness. He should have just gone for the guy on the steed herding sheep! He totally wanted to. ;) To each her own reading, though.


message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

It's amazing to me how useful Scoob and the Gang are to book reviewing. Maybe that's just me though. And you.


Sparrow They're in our collective subconscious. We're just here bringin' the gang to the spotlight, where they belong.


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Wait, did you get spammed? Welcome to the club!


message 26: by Sparrow (last edited Jun 13, 2010 09:32AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Sparrow Yeah, this thread's been hit a couple of times, I think. I'm pretty sure it's the ghost of Elizabeth Kostova. She's pissed and selling jeans at reasonable prices.


Sandi Meredith wrote: "Yeah, this thread's been hit a couple of times, I think. I'm pretty sure it's the ghost of Elizabeth Kostova. She's pissed and selling jeans at reasonable prices."

That had me laughing.


message 28: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Loved your review! :-) The thing is, I should have loved this books. It had all the right elements: spookiness, travel, mysterious old cities, clues, suspicious people, forbidden lore, secret societies...

And yet they just...weren't...put...together right, somehow. It's just too dry. In a way that the novel it apes (Dracula) wasn't, for some reason.


Sparrow Thanks, Jessica! I've met a lot of people who really liked it. Wasn't for me, though. ;) A couple of weeks ago, I had an IRL friend recommend this book to me because she thought I was still big on the vampire reading. It was funny, but awkward.

One time, I was working, and this acquaintance of mine was kind of following me around, so I asked him to tell me a story. So, he proceeded to tell me the directions to this hot springs. The whole time he was telling it, I kept waiting for him to start the actual story, not realizing that there was no story, only directions. Reading this book was a little like that. I kept waiting for Dracula's evil plot, not realizing that the weird book scheme was his evil plot.


Sparrow I know :). I'm glad it was a better experience for you! In all fairness, I did read this book PSO'M. The world was a different place then. Still, I can't support the idea that cataloging antique Dracula books counts as an evil plot. Narcissistic, maybe, but evil?


message 31: by Sparrow (last edited Aug 24, 2010 06:55PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Sparrow I thought Buffy taught us that it was a gray area. Hmmm. He seemed like he was trying pretty hard not to kill people. Who did he actually kill? Did he kill the dad-professor's professor? Did he really kill that guy, or did the guy just have heart trouble?

And WHY was he killing people about it (if, indeed, he was)? Get a library card, dude!


Sparrow See, that's the thing. I can think of a couple of people on GR whose evil plots actually make me shiver. It gets way more horror movie around here.

But, again, was there actual violence? I thought there was just a bunch of jumping around with disguises. Poor Dracula. I was kinda rooting for him by the end.


Sparrow Yeah, I'm totally hopeless, I think, at figuring out when characters are supposed to be menacing. I did the same thing with the girl character in Bitter Seeds. Apparently, she was supposed to be menacing, too. I'm better at feeling like characters are villains if they're overtly violent. It tends to work the same with Cold War movies. I get bored because everyone's walking around whispering about stuff, but no one actually does anything.

Maybe her point, though, was that people really are more likely to die by cars than by the undead. So true.


Mystique I think I just fell in love with you...just a little.


Mystique Meredith wrote: "I know :). I'm glad it was a better experience for you! In all fairness, I did read this book PSO'M. The world was a different place then. Still, I can't support the idea that cataloging antiqu..."


Don't you dare "in all fairness" your review. It was spot-on in all ways.

When you're right, you're right. And you're right.


message 36: by Sparrow (last edited Sep 28, 2010 08:51AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Sparrow Ha! Thanks! But no, seriously, Skye O'Malley is the most evil book ever written. It is an abysmal pit of boring, rape, and shellfish. I was going to come back and give this one another star because there is nothing so boring and horrible as SO'M, but I still couldn't do it. There should be a separate star rating system that only SO'M is on. Reading it has thrown off all of my star ratings - they used to be based on a scientific system, of course, but now it's just animal instinct.

Elizabeth is totally a sucker for good scholarship, though. You just wave parchment in front of her face and she swoons.


Sparrow You Elizabeth, yes. Of course good scholarship. I'll note it, though. Yeah, I think it just shows what a sucker for scholarship you are, though, that you say bad scholarship is worse than Skye. Nothing is worse than Skye. But don't worry, that's a totally legit thing to be a sucker for. I'm a sucker for fish stories and beard stories, so, that's pretty pedestrian compared to yours.

Did it not throw off your ratings?! I guess not. You did give Fulk one. I applaud that.


Eh?Eh! Meredith wrote: "Elizabeth is totally a sucker for good scholarship, though. You just wave parchment in front of her face and she swoons."

So funny if you meant Elizabeth here!


Meredith wrote: "I'm better at feeling like characters are villains if they're overtly violent. It tends to work the same with Cold War movies. I get bored because everyone's walking around whispering about stuff, but no one actually does anything."

What about corporate evil? They're supposed to be individuals now, I think. Can you argue that corporate actions don't result in evil?


Sparrow Yes I do think corporations and cold war people can maybe BE the most evil, but they're not the most interesting evil. Which is probably why they get away with it.

And even the tulip problem couldn't turn you against Kostova. That's love.


message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

Skye O'Malley did indeed throw off my ratings. The most recent fulking is a really good example of it, because I'm still suffering from Post O'Malley Syndrome. She's messing with my science.


Sparrow Don't worry, I won't tell Lex Luthor.


Mystique Exactly...what a dreadful book.


Dorothy Your review was, by far, the best thing about this book.


Sparrow hahaha! Thank you.


Eileen "Scooby Doo with no Scooby snacks"!!! Love that, and basically agree with your assessment. I wasn't as irked, BUT, this story wasn't all that compelling - it could have been so much more.


Sparrow haha! Thank you. Yeah, this book totally makes me crazy for whatever reason. I know I shouldn't feel so venomous about it, but I do.


Eileen Meredith wrote: "haha! Thank you. Yeah, this book totally makes me crazy for whatever reason. I know I shouldn't feel so venomous about it, but I do."

Well, when I read it I didn't realize she'd gotten a $2 million advance - I might have been more irked had I realized that! But seriously, while I enjoyed the foreign scenery and the history lessons, and in spite of my own love for librarians and historians alike, this book dragged. I kept waiting for it to get to the point, and that could have been done in far fewer pages!


Sparrow Yeah, it totally bugs me when really mediocre books are phenomenally popular. Maybe people are just getting something out of this that I don't understand. The terror of libraries?


Sparrow Yeah, it had some potential, but the ending is so lame.

Thanks!


Sparrow OH NO!! and after I specially requested someone to post on this review, too!!!

sad.


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