Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Genre: Fiction, historical mystery
Publisher, Year: Little Brown, 2005
Other Works: Debut
Flags: Adult themes, tenuous references
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
Premise: A young girl finds some curious, old documents, which point to the past. When she asks her father about them, she unknowingly re-engages a journey that began many years ago.

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time and finally got the chance to do it. I kept putting it off because of the sheer volume—it’s a heavy lifter, this one.  I do wish, however, that  I’d read it in the fall—it’s a perfectly creepy Halloween book. Perhaps I’ll tackle Bram Stoker’s classic next year?  Mmm, perhaps.

A historian’s daughter, who remains unnamed, finds a mysterious book and some old letters one day while looking through her father’s library.  Inside the book there is a woodcut of a medieval dragon with one word: Drakulya.  As she asks her father about the books origins, she learns the truth of her own origin: the circumstances under which her parents met, and the deadly journey they embarked on many years ago to uncover an ancient mystery.

First off, I loved everything about this book—every page.  Most of the book is written in letters from various sources.  You do have to suspend some disbelief in this because to read all those letters would have certainly taken up much of the searching time. But, in this, I am able to concede.  The book is too brilliant to be bothered by it.

You can definitely tell that Kostova is an academic—her detail-oriented nature is deftly demonstrated. She is nothing if not thorough.  And although I learned a lot more about medieval Transylvania than I really cared too, in the end, I found all that detail to really enhance the story. Until the end, you don’t see how that historical backdrop is necessary for the reader to really understand the characters—their motivations would be stilted without all that detail. And what characters they are.  I loved each one.  I read one criticism that said that the characters voices were not distinct enough (a common problem with multiple narrator novels), but I must disagree.  I found Paul’s voice to be very different from his daughter’s and completely separate from Helen’s or Rossi’s.  The characters in this book are very distinct.  Paul is your inexperienced, shy, sweet hero, caught up in something so big, yet he can’t abandon it. Helen, the cold, hardened woman, with brick-wall defenses.  The two of them, an unlikely team. And our brave narrator, na├»ve, yet bold—she never backs down—a little bit of both her parents. I loved every moment with each of them.  The title is still, as yet, puzzling to me. Not that it’s not fitting, but I’m still not sure who THE historian is.  Is it Paul, Helen, Rossi, Paul’s daughter?  Or is it the master himself? There’s no telling.

I haven’t said anything about the most important character: Vlad, himself.  Do you get to meet him in the flesh, horribly preserved? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.  But I can tell you this. Nothing about this book disappoints. Nothing.

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