Book Review

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

C

Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Publication Info: Little, Brown 2005
ISBN: 0316011770
Genre: Literary Fiction

Oh my God. Never has a book sagged so much in the middle. I mean, seriously, it droops more than the bits ‘n pieces you’ll see in Bust a Nut in Grandma’s Butt.

Pity, because it started out with so much promise. The Historian, I mean, not Bust a Nut in Grandma’s Butt.

Warning: You know how annoying I am when I write reviews, what with talking in detail about the plot and all? Well, it’s going to be EVEN WORSE with this one, because dear Lord, so many bits I want to make fun of that I can’t do without giving away details. So be warned: check out the hidden text only if you don’t care about spoilers, or if you’ve read this book already.

This book is an unabashed homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s partly an epistolary novel, and it also uses the “I heard this story from this guy who was given the story from this guy who heard it from the guy who actually experienced the events” narrative device. Yes, there’s probably a name for that narrative device. No, I don’t know what it is, and I can’t be arsed to look it up. No, I don’t know what my English degree is good for. I mean, look, I’m ending a sentence in a preposition!

So: About 2/3 of the story is told via incredibly long-winded letters that no person in their right mind would write, with a big chunk of the rest being a story passed on second- and third-hand to the narrator, a device beloved to nineteenth-century authors to impart a cosy sort of feel yet provide a sheen of faux authority to their tall tales. The rest is the narrator telling her merry little tale, plus bits and pieces of ancient manuscripts.

I get what the author is trying to do. I can even pinpoint what this book reminds me of, from Pamela, which is the prototype for the “nothing much happens and the letter-writer is annoying and I wish she’d just get good and raped already but dear God I can’t stop reading gaaaaah” novel, to The Castle of Otranto, to Dracula itself.

The problem is, right around page 350, I suddenly realized: this is it. The most exciting bits of the book have already happened. Regardless, I couldn’t help but slog on anyway because I hoped there would a Stupendous! Resolution! To! This! Big! Old! Mess!

I was, as Garth Algar might say, denied. The ending is… but I get ahead of myself.

The narrator, a historian herself, says in the prologue that she wants to recount some Very Odd Events that happened when she was a teenager for posterity or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The story starts in 1972, when she finds some mysterious letters and an even more mysterious book in her dad’s documents. The book is Ominous: very old, odd-smelling, with completely blank pages except for a woodcut print of a big old bad-ass dragon in the center, accompanied by the word “DRAKULYA.”

She asks her dad—I almost said “badgers,” but the narrator is far too limp to do something that energetic—about the mysterious book. Dad turns pale, stammers, puts her off, but eventually starts unraveling a long, long, long story that took place while he was still in grad school.

Seems that you don’t find the book, the book finds you. After discovering the book in his library carrel while researching his thesis on Renaissance-era Dutch merchants (this sounds incredibly boring, but trust me, compared to this book, I bet that thesis would’ve provided pulse-pounding excitement), daddy-o brings the book to his thesis advisor and renowned historian, a right smart chappie named Bartholomew Rossi.

Rossi, in turn, turns pale, stammers, and then launches into his own story about how he found a very similar book under similar circumstances, and how his investigations have led him to the conclusion that Dracula is alive and well and living in Hell—or somewhere in Eastern Europe, at any rate. Before his investigations can go on much further, though, some Nasty Shit happens that turns Rossi away from the trail. Dracula, it seems, will not brook any trespasses, which makes no sense when you get to the ending—but more on that below.

Right after imparting part of his story to the narrator’s father, however, Rossi disappears from his office, with a puddle of blood on his desk and another sanguineous smear high up on the wall being the only clues. Thus begins the Hunt for Red Rossi. OK, Rossi’s not a commie, but as the narrator’s father finds out, he’s definitely been spirited beyond the Iron Curtain.

So: Story within story within story. All of them mostly boring, peppered with just enough “Oooh, creepy!” to keep me reading.

Later in the book, the narrator’s father vanishes, haring off to seek the narrator’s mother. The problem? She allegedly died when the narrator was but a wee bairn. However, daddy darling leaves reams and reams of letters behind, which the narrator reads over the course of a night—a feat I have much respect for, because that part of the book? Took me two weeks to work through. Seriously, I kept falling asleep every 15 pages or so.

The book is mostly daddy darling’s tale. He traipses all over the European continent, from Istanbul (hearing that name always makes me think of that They Might Be Giants song) to Hungary in his search for Rossi, and in the meanwhile meets and falls in Lurve with a feisty Romanian hottie. Peripherally, we have the narrator pursuing her dad after he vanishes, though conveniently enough, he leaves her all sorts of clues and the aforementioned stuporously detailed series of letters.

Besides the slow, slow, slowwwww pace, two other things bothered me quite a bit about the tale.

One of them is a peeve I’ve had since I was a child. You know how frustrated you were as a kid when you read a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book and you figure out shit wayyyyy faster than the allegedly smart, sassy investigators, leading you to wonder if they’d been hit on the head one too many times by nefarious kidnappers who don’t want them to figure the Secret of the Haunted Barbie Doll? Or when they ignore the easy, obvious solution in favor of doing something completely fucking retarded? The characters in The Historian do the same sort of thing several times. And I’m not just talking about the good guys—the bad guys do it, too.

My favorite instance of this sort of obtuseness revolves around a completely unremarkable copy of Dracula belonging to the narrator’s father’s university library. A creepy undead librarian attempts to remove its entry from the card catalog, Hot Young Romanian thing has checked it out, and everyone acts like it’s the only possible copy to have and OMG IT’S SUCH A DANGEROUS BOOK TO READ.

Dude. It’s Dracula. I doubt that book has been out of print since its first publication. While they’re making a fuss over the one copy, I’m wondering why the narrator’s father couldn’t have walked into the nearest bookstore and just bought himself a cheap paperback edition, and why the creepy undead librarian hadn’t torched all the bookstores in town carrying copies of this book if keeping people from reading this book was so stinkin’ important.

In the meanwhile, this intrepid reader contemplated taking a razor to the wrists—not hers, but the characters’; I thought maybe fresh blood would lure Dracula out and they’d solve the mystery that much faster, but alas, I couldn’t.

The other thing that bothered me is going to entail quite a bit of spoilerage. Please, for the love of tacos, don’t read this any further if you don’t want to know the resolution of the book, because HOLY SHIT it’s stupid.

OK, ready?

Dracula wants a librarian.

Oh yeah, that’s right. Dracula himself hand-makes all these creepy little blank books with nothing but a woodcut of a dragon and his own fucking name right in the center. He hands these out like candy to bright young academicians, though why he picked this batch, I will never figure out because a lot of the time they seemed about as sharp as a sack of wet hair. Oh, sure, he occasionally scares off the dilettantes with random acts of cruelty and mayhem, but ultimately, this is all a big, perverse test because he wants to pick the most persistent chump to help him catalogue his supah-secret subterranean library.

Sorry for the overuse of sarcastic italics, but: Dracula is going through all this trouble for a fucking librarian. What, the classifieds weren’t good enough any more? Let me tell you, if the Internet and Craigslist had been around in the 50s, we would’ve been spared this sorry story. Out of all the many “What the FUCK?” endings the author could’ve chosen, this is probably right up there with Dracula seeking a colon hydrotherapist for fun times and love a la Kenny Loggins.

(Actually, if somebody wrote an erotic parody of The Historian called The Colon Hydrotherapist, that would be so. fucking. awesome.)

And after all the stupendous build-up and the ominous atmosphere, the vanquishing of the bad guy happened so fast, I would’ve missed it if I’d blinked. In one of the few parts of the story that could’ve used more detail and drama instead of less, it was all “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” and “Oh hey, bad guy’s dead.”

Yet, despite all its flaws and its uncanny ability to mimic Ambien, I still found the book readable. Initially, the slow pace built up the suspense and I raced through the book, eager to find out more; it’s really too bad that the pace actually slowed down and the suspense went nowhere. And no matter how saggy and baggy and slow it got, it says something about the author’s skill that I still slogged on, determined to find out the ending no matter how much I had to pay in library fines. The concept overall was pretty cool, and it provided reams of historical detail whose accuracy I cannot vouch for but which sounded pretty damn cool. And the quietly creepy parts were very, very creepy.

If this book were a piece of meat, it’d be in need of a really, really skilled butcher, one who really knew how to trim the shit out of that shit. As it was, it was a big, bloody hunk of meat with all the gristle and fat and tendons and icky crap attached to it, and I had to chew my way through all that. My teeth are stronger, I guess, and it didn’t taste all that bad, especially because I’m the kind of freak who generally enjoys the extraneous, icky crap, but I’m still kind of pissed off, especially since this is being touted as the most tender of filets.

(Yeah, I know, but hey, I warned you about the meat metaphor.)

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Rosina says:

    exactly.

    If this woman can make Dracula boring, imagine what she could do if she wrote a book about librarians. Oh wait, she did that at the same time.

  2. 2
    Lynn M says:

    Okay, thanks for this review. Because the other day I lingered over a copy of this book while at Target, trying to decide if I should get it or not. I’d heard “stuff” about it, meaning I’d heard that people are reading it, but I hadn’t heard if it was worth it.

    Now I’m really, really glad I took a pass. I have no time in my life to be bored. I have a gazillion TBRs that are no doubt wonderfully exciting. Last thing I need is to drag myself through this drudgery.

  3. 3
    Anna says:

    So: Story within story within story. All of them mostly boring, peppered with just enough “Oooh, creepy!” to keep me reading.

    That was exactly what I thought. But the boring bits were so boring. And man, she could have done with a transatlantic beta-reader, because she apparently has absolutely no idea of how Oxford dons in the ‘30s (or even any English people now) spoke or speak. Refering to the “halls” instead of “corridors” was just the tip of the iceberg of anachronistic Americanisms.

    Also, I interviewed Kostova for work (I’m a features writer) and while she’s quite nice, she has, shall we say, a somewhat snobbish attitude to literature. She was at pains to stress that she wasn’t a fantasy writer, she didn’t read fantasy literature ever, and she’d never read another vampire story besides Dracula. I didn’t point out that if she had, her book might be a bit more entertaining. But I wanted to. I did bring up the myriad books that are both fantasy novels and literary fiction (like Jonathan Strange, for example), but she didn’t seem to get it. She went on and on about how she only reads “literary books”. It was quite sickening, really.

  4. 4
    Candy says:

    You bring up an interesting point, Anna, about the tone of the book, because the voices for the first-person narrators, which span centuries and several different people from very, very different backgrounds, ALL SOUND THE SAME.

    Bugged the shit out of me.

    I wonder how Kostova would feel if she knew her book had been compared to Bust a Nut in Grandma’s Butt? Or that I wish it had been re-worked into The Colon Hydrotherapist? Oh, I’m in an evil mood today. Eeeeville, even.

  5. 5

    I know this book isn’t written according to modern conventions, and I really, really loved it (as I’ve no doubt said ad nauseum.) It did drag a bit in the middle, but I found it fascinating for all the semantic and historical in-jokes peppered through the text. Plus, its pokes at academes were screamingly funny, at least for me.

    Plus I’m the kind of girl that reads Dracula and The Cenci and all sorts of old literary crap that’s deadly boring when you get right down to it, only I Really Like It.

    I get the feeling that this is the only book Kostova’s ever going to write, not least because it took her ten years. And I do agree that she needs a tougher editor. I just loved the book so much that I forgave the slow bits. It does indeed say something for Kostova’s skill that she was able to keep this juggernaut in the air despite herself.

    Now, if you really want to tackle a hunk of gristle, Candy, check out Hunger’s Brides. I’m halfway through and feel like bashing my head into the wall—or the book’s cover, seeing as how it weighs four pounds or something. *grin*

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    Awesome review, Candy. And people who get their knickers in a twist about literary works and not reading “fantasy” irritate me to no end.

    I, of course, have not read the book, and now I don’t have to (yay), but I will bet it is a book that you try to read and try to be seen reading but don’t actually finish because it shuts your brain off like a power outage in the middle of a bad documentary.

  7. 7
    Arethusa says:

    I knew the book would suck. I heard about the book, read about the exorbitant advance, and I knew.

    Dracula was looking for a fucking librarian? I’m guffawing here.

    What I really want to know is whatcha thought about that the latest Kleypas b.c. I, too, pretty much buy her books hot off the press even though she’s written a few doozies. I am compelled.

  8. 8
    Candy says:

    Plus, its pokes at academes were screamingly funny, at least for me.

    Was there really some fun-poking going on? Because it flew completely over my head. Probably because I was too drowsy to pay attention to nuances.

    I don’t know what it is about certain types of old-fashioned books that I like, but other books that try to emulate this style that rub me the wrong way. A lot of older books are slow as ass, but I don’t mind. Hell, there are a lot of newer books that are slow as ass, too.

  9. 9
    Candy says:

    Arethusa: I have Ruth Wind’s Countdown to review, then I’m getting to It Happened One Autumn. I finished it in two sittings, which doesn’t say too much, because I read all Lisa Kleypas books that fast, even the bad ones. That woman has some mean page-turning juju built into her writing, whether or not you care for it.

  10. 10
    Kerry says:

    Maybe I’m just contrary, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

    I acknowledge your points Candy, but I fell into the story and had a great ride (I don’t think that came out the way I meant it to).  I love your snark, but I guess I don’t apply it myself when reading.  If I have a good reading experience, I’m happy.

    I had quibbles, but liked the book.

  11. 11
    Candy says:

    Maybe I’m just contrary, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

    Actually, looking at what professional critics have said what Amazon.com reviewers think, most people liked it quite a bit. So you’re not being contrary at all in the larger context of people who’ve read the book.

    When it comes down to it, I’m just an ornery bitch, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s no rhyme and reason to what I like and what I don’t. The whole Dracula-wants-an-undead-librarian thing was just too ludicrous not to make fun of, though.

  12. 12
    fiveandfour says:

    Thanks for the detailed review, Candy, because now if this book comes up in conversation I’ll know what The Historian is more or less about and I’ve been spared the actual work of reading it myself.  Yay for outsourcing!

    And, ohhhh, but hearing about snobbish writers never fails to burn me up a little.  It actually gives me the image of the rail-thin supermodel who secretly stuffs herself with Ho-Hos and french fries when no one’s looking, then proclaims to the world how an unhealthful morsel will never pass her lips and if only other women would eat like her, they could be thin, too.  I like to imagine these writers have been in contact with more trash than a compactor, just secretly and under cover of darkness in their beds at night.  Why else protest so stringently of their ignorance of “lesser” writings?  (And a question for another day: why would any artist cut him or herself off from potential sources of learning and inspiration?  I mean, some of these writers sell so well for a reason – they can tell a compelling story!)

    Ahem.  Guess I’m feeling a bit eeevillle myself today :).

  13. 13
    Laura Kinsale says:

    Interesting, Candy, I had pretty much the same experience reading this book (first novel I’ve finished in a long time—and it took me a long time…!)  I thought the premise was fascinating, the early part drew me in, the narrator annoyed me right off the bat, all the voices sounded the same, the convoluted letter set-up seemed silly, the descriptions of place were very alluring at first but began to repeat themselves noticeably, and just when you should be sitting up all night in the bathroom biting your fingernails and turning pages as fast as you can to finish, I was falling asleep with a heavy book sliding off the bed.  I agree that it’s unlikely she’ll follow it up.  For one thing, with what?  That’s a one-time premise, as far as I can see.  Unless we bring Drac back for The Historian II.

    It might have ended with more interest if the narrator had fallen in strange and compelled love with Dracula in spite of the boy-next-door guy, and then faced a real choice in terms of putting an end to him or not.  Dracula was certainly the best character in the book.

  14. 14
    Tonda says:

    Sounds to me like someone read “The Club Dumas” way too many times (which I readily admit is a favorite of mine). LOL!

    Thanks for the ranty-review! I’ve been eyeing this book for weeks. Now I know I can wait for paperback, or used! Or skip it entirely.

  15. 15

    Was there really some fun-poking going on? Because it flew completely over my head. Probably because I was too drowsy to pay attention to nuances.

    I guess you had to have dealt with one or two college departmental infights before it became funny. (Which is like saying one has to have one’s skin peeled off and be rubbed down with vinegar before finding something funny. Gak.) Now I’m wondering if the humor was intentional.

    I found Dracula needing a librarian to be completely believable. Being a book hoarder myself, I can think of nothing else that I’d want to do for centuries other than stock up on exquisite volumes. And when you’ve lived for a few hundred years, just taking out a personal ad is probably boring in the extreme. I thought it was exactly the game a bright, sociopathic, sadistic vampire would play. But then again, I’m warped.

    It might have ended with more interest if the narrator had fallen in strange and compelled love with Dracula in spite of the boy-next-door guy, and then faced a real choice in terms of putting an end to him or not.  Dracula was certainly the best character in the book.

    Amen! I totally did not dig the boy next door. I thought Helen should have fallen in love with Dracula and the narrator should have found out she was the Spawn of the Undead. If I have one quibble with the book, that’s it.

  16. 16
    Monica says:

    I also was compelled to finish the damn boring thing, and then I was like, shit, is that it?

    How many $200,000 advances for truly awesome books could that $2 mil have provided?  With the huge amounts of promo dollars lavished on it split?

    (Counts fingers and weeps).

  17. 17
    Danielle says:

    Dracula is going through all this trouble for a fucking librarian.

    Hmph. I’ll have you know that we’re worth going through a lot of trouble for.  :P

    Signed,
    Your friendly neighbourhood librarian

    p.s you are so right about the ‘ohnoes it’s a sinister mass media copy of Dracula!’ though. @@

  18. 18
    Candy says:

    Hmph. I’ll have you know that we’re worth going through a lot of trouble for.

    Here’s the thing: the ONE librarian we see Dracula infect is tossed to the wayside.

    Who does he pick, by and large? PONCEY, LONG-WINDED HISTORIANS, THAT’S WHO.

    Do not be fooled. Dracula does not love you or your kind.

    And really, if he’s all hot to trot for a good librarian, why historians? What special knowledge would they have about the intricacies of cataloguing and keeping books in good shape, etc? Why not hand out those freaky little books to librarians who work in libraries that contain substantial collections of, say, ancient parchments?

  19. 19
    Sandy says:

    This is one of those times when I don’t think the reviewer and I read the same book.

    Yes, it sagged in the middle.  And the final pay off for the “human” part of the story was given short shrift.  But, as for the rest, I thought it was a fascinating story told in a variety of equally fascinating voices.

    And I’m surprised you think it’s one of those “literary” novels people want to be seen reading and really don’t read.  (The Hours, anyone?)  I thought it was the exact opposite—a challenging book that was also compulsively readable.

    Just goes to show you, there’s a book out there for everyone.

  20. 20
    Mar says:

    I agree with you on just about anything. The ending is so quick, and the rest of the book is so freaking slow, that’s it definitely left me feeling dissatisfied. Also, that epilogue? Resolved absolutely nothing. It was totally pointless. And we never got to find out what happened with the narrator and the nice college boy, either.

    I guess this just goes to show that the literary novels that get all the hoo-ha are inevitably a load of crap. Every one I’ve picked up that the critics have acclaimed “Best book ever!” etc. etc. has been horrible, except for The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was actually quite lovely.

    Oh, and I agree Kostova won’t write anoter book. She seems to feel that her book is an instant!classic and she need to contribute no more to literature. Humph. Methinks her head is a little inflated.

    The other thing that really bothered me about the form, was that we never learn the narrator’s name. I understand it’s part of the convention to make it read like certain historical books, but come on. I just wanted to know her name so I could curse her out for being such an idiot.

  21. 21
    Mar says:

    Hee, that should be I agree with you on just about everything, not anything. Typo alert! And, that is in regards to this book, of course. I wouldn’t want to commandeer your opinions on, say, rice pudding.

  22. 22
    Candy says:

    And I’m surprised you think it’s one of those “literary” novels people want to be seen reading and really don’t read.  (The Hours, anyone?)

    Don’t be dissing my boy Cunningham! I’ll cut choo!

    I’ve loved some artsy, slow literary novels in my time. This book just didn’t do it for me. When there’s a lack of good story, fascinating characters and beautiful prose will carry me through. This book had only limited amounts of these for me, hence the C grade.

    And just to be clear: I, personally, don’t think that this is a book everyone pretends to read but don’t bother finishing. Sarah did.

    And frankly? I chose to categorize it as literary fiction only because I didn’t know WHAT to call it. It’s too limp to be horror, not nearly literary enough to be lit fic, and too much paranormal stuff to be straight historical fiction. If I could make up my own category, I think “Long-winded Dracula fanfic” might come close.

  23. 23
    Tonda says:

    “Long-winded Dracula fanfic”

    *SNORT* You made me snort tea into my nasal passage.

  24. 24

    “Dracula was looking for a fucking librarian?”

    If he had actually been looking for one of those hawt fucking librarians, that would have made it a much better book, in my opinion. :D

  25. 25
    gail says:

    I think I commented about this when y’all mentioned it earlier. I totally agree with everything Candy said—I finished it, complaining the entire time, and when I got to the end, I too was going “Is THAT all????”

    The travelogues got stale and everybody was so pale and bloodless…even Dracula. sigh. Oh well.

  26. 26
    sherryfair says:

    Oh, dear. I really loved “The Hours.”

    If I read “The Historian,” it will be about two years from now, when everyone’s over it. There’s a tradeoff that I think is worth it: I won’t be able to engage in any current discussions on it. But I find that lagging a long way behind the “early adopters” seems to work well for me with much-hyped books. Particularly with literary novels, when the glow of the newly proclaimed genius has dimmed a little. (Every year or so, there’s a “boy with a book” whom I get a little tired of reading about. You know who I mean.)

  27. 27
    Candy says:

    Oh, dear. I really loved “The Hours.”

    Me, too. I love Michael Cunningham’s work in general.

    Is there a support group for our kind? *shuffles feet in shame*

  28. 28
    Candy says:

    Oh, and don’t get me started on how much I loved The Corrections, which I approached with a lot of caution because of all the hype and Franzen’s dickheadedness. Talk about a book in need of tighter editing that I loved despite (perhaps because?) of its sloppiness.

  29. 29
    sherryfair says:

    YES! YES!

    I remember reading two excerpts from “The Corrections,” before it came out, and thinking: “Who is this guy?” I wrote his name on a sticky and the minute the book came out, I was down at the Strand getting an ARC.

    One excerpt followed Chip on the day he stuffed the salmon from Dean & DeLuca down the front of his leather pants, which he intended to cook that evening for his visiting parents.

    The other was the part about Denise in her summer job, when she had an affair with that sleazeball engineer.

    Between those two excerpts, damn, I wanted that book!

    I agree with you that it could have lost some pages … a little bit less of the investment opportunity in whatever-that-thing-was (I’ve blocked that from my mind) and the Alzheimer’s hallucinations, and maybe a little less of Chip’s adventures in Eastern Europe.

    But then I remember some masterful moments in Edith’s head.

    And the wrangling between Gary and Caroline.

    And I know why I kept that book.

    Well, Candy, since we agree on these books, I must print out your review of “The Historian” & keep it by me in 2007, when I pick up a copy for 50 cents at a yard sale and finally read it, and everyone tells me, “Yeah, I read that, but I can’t remember what I thought about it.”

    [Apologies for hijacking the thread.]

  30. 30
    Laura Kinsale says:

    “If he had actually been looking for one of those hawt fucking librarians, that would have made it a much better book, in my opinion. :D”

    ROFL!!

    Thanks.  I’m re-writing it in my head now. ;)

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