The Historian: a great, sweeping Odyssey but an unfortunately tame ending

Despite the title of this blog post, I liked Elizabeth Kostova‘s book, The Historian, a lot. A lot.

You need to be pretty dedicated to read it, though. While I have no problem whatsoever with Very Long Books, this one builds fairly slowly from the beginning. It really gets going in a big way only by the time it’s already reached the length of some entire modern novels–so if you’re looking for immediate, intense action and a quick resolution, this is not the book for you. If you love history, though, and you love the idea of studying the history of folklore, especially the folklore of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, oh my, you will love this book!

It focuses on the story of Vlad Tepes, the prince of Wallachia (now part of Romania) whose story morphed into the tale of Dracula. A sixteen-year old girl traces the steps her parents took before her birth, searching for the tomb of Tepes by unearthing legends and histories all over Eastern Europe. We learn both their history and hers, as her progress is intertwined with excerpts from her scholar father’s letters. And before long, we realize that that there’s a reason why the folk tales and legends about Dracula and others like him have appeared in many different places and times: it’s possible that he was real, and that he is still alive. In finding his tomb, the characters in this book might find more horror than they bargained for.

This sounds like “just another Gothic novel,” or perhaps a “horror story lite.” There are threads of both in this book, but it’s so much more than that. I suspect that all the tales and legends that Ms. Kostova explored along the way are genuine stories from the times and cultures she sets them in. Which does raise the question: why do they appear everywhere and everywhen? With the explorations in The Historian, Kostova takes us on an actual scholarly exploration. Which I, being that sort of scholar at heart, lapped up eagerly. And the closer the protagonists get to their answers, the more unnerving and tense the novel gets.

The only disappointment I have with the book is that the ultimate problem the characters face is resolved fairly simply and with such brief work. And the reason that most of them were, in fact, chosen (unbeknownst to them) to set out on this quest is kind of a lame one. With all the difficulty of their search, over so many years and across half the continent of Europe, I would have hoped it would be for a more powerful reason, and I would also have expected the resolution to be a lot harder and take longer.

I did love the journey, though. Following the history of the Dracula story (or tales of vampires) through time and through all those lands was like a big feast for me. Despite the rather disappointing ending, I’d say Kostova did a great job of her first published novel.

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