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Elizabeth Kostova; The Historian

After I finished reading The Passage, by Justin Cronin, which is more on the larger side of books (what was it, 900 pages?), I thought for a while about picking up something a little lighter. Something quick, easy and simple, all that. Somehow, however, I was drawn to this one book I’ve had on my shelf for quite some time now. It sat there, bright and shiny, silently screaming read me! as I passed the bookcase. So I took it, examined it, realized ‘oh my, it’s about Dracula!’, and started reading it.

TheHistorian

The idea of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova (2008), is amazing. Historians, anthropologists, students and professors alike find strange books that start to haunt them so that they all embark on a research about Dracula, trying to figure out whether the legends were true, where he was eventually buried, or whether he was buried at all. Maybe he’s still alive, infecting nosy librarians with his horrid plague.

In the middle of all this we find a teenage girl trying to find her father, who is telling her the story of his trying to find his old tutor and friend, first through conversations and later through letters. And here is where things get complicated.
There is a woman, older now, telling about her past as a teenager, travelling around Europe with her father, who is telling her about his own past, and through some letters, the past of his professor, Professor Rossi. There are letters from Rossi, from the father, from Helen Rossi (the Professor’s daughter, and a ‘schoolmate’ of the father, mother of the woman telling the story), from some monks from the 15th century, etc… All nice and cosy, mingled together in a way that is rather difficult to follow at times. Telling about incidents that have to do with Dracula, with other people they meet, with the research they are trying to do, and quite oddly, about what they have for lunch and dinner in the various countries and cities they visit.

And truly, if there is something you’ve always wanted to know about Istanbul, Romania, Budapest, Bulgaria… At least if it’s concerning their past in the Ottoman period, it’ll be mentioned in the book. All the beautiful sights of monasteries, churches, streets, mountains… A train station in France…
Yes, it gets a little old.

I had troubles reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, at times, because of all the elaborate descriptions. I admit, I skipped a few paragraphs. Here, though, I didn’t, but I honorably suffered through it all, because I was sure there had to come a part where these descriptions had to give way to some action, something more interesting. And it did! About 500 pages in (my version has about 700 pages).
What was interesting, at least to me, was that until about the middle I was totally immersed in the ‘action’ of the book. Then I found that what I really cared about, what I waited for, what I wanted to know, was about the relationships between the people in the story. The parent-child relationships in different families, and the love affairs among the main characters were what kept me reading the book with similar enjoyment to that which I felt when I first started it.

All in all, I’d say that the book could be a lot shorter, and a lot clearer, and could still have the same (if not stronger) hold on the reader. The letters were often written in a way no ordinary person would ever write a letter, or even write a story in a letter. It was too ‘bookish’, too full of actual, well-thought-of narrative to seem genuine.

220px-Vlad_Tepes_002But just because the idea was amazing, and the character relationships so compelling, and because when things did happen the story was very interesting indeed, I liked the book. Enough to give it 4/5 stars in Goodreads.
Also the fact that it looks, sounds and smells old, even though I got it brand new, helped me get attached to it very quickly.
The book wasn’t really what I expected, so I could say it disappointed me. But then again, it surprised me in other aspects, so it more or less balanced it all out. If nothing else, I learned a whole lot about Vlad III, both as Dracula and the Prince of Wallachia, as Vlad the Impaler. And of course about the legend of vampires, and Dracula as part of it, both in Bram Stoker’s novel and outside of it.
But of course by now I know better than to get into a too deep a research about the issue.

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