Reading Log: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
I did enjoy reading The Historian. One of the most interesting aspects for me had less to do with the book per se, but more with the Eastern European setting prior to 1990. Most of the second half of the book takes place in Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, all further East than I ever got when we lived in Germany. It is so easy for us to think about traveling to the former Eastern bloc, that I found Kostova's descriptions of some of the protagonists' difficulties reminiscent of my own experiences.
Probably the only negative I really have the book comes in the structure. The narrative takes place in 1972, but the main story lines come from the 1930s and 1960s through different characters' letters. After the narrator's father disappears leaving only a letter saying that he is looking for her mother, the majority of the narrative takes place in his letters to her telling the story she has only begun to drag out of him in person. I just simply found myself unable to read the story as letters; they were far too detailed and descriptive, too narrative, in fact, to really be letters. Epistolary novels are nothing new, and certainly not unfamiliar to most English majors, but I've always had problems with "reality" when I read letters that are more novelistic than what someone would write in a letter. For instance, when describing his and Helen's flight from Frankfurt to Istanbul, the narrator's father, Paul, writes: "Helen was actually laughing next to me, watching my amazement at all this. She had brushed her hair and put on lipstick in teh airplane and looked remarkably fresh after our cramped night. She wore the little scarf on her neck; I still had not seen what lay under it and wouldn't have dared to ask her to remove it. 'Welcome to the big world, Yankee,' she said, smiling. It was real smile this time, not her customary grimace" (189). There are too many details to be remembered after a lapse of some 15 years in time, as well as the general feeling reading the letters is more like reading a novel than epistles. Which, in fact, is what we're doing. The letters, plus a few other historical texts and manuscripts thrown in, essentially last from page 187 to page 650, with only a few breaks to continue the narrator's search for her father.
I did feel, at times, that the story seemed to get a little off track and become bogged down in Kostova's own interest in history's twists and turns, but by and large, I truly enjoyed the story. I've always been a fan of the Dracula story and vampire legends/tales. There is more to this novel (at almost 700 pages, I guess that's an understatement) than there is to most treatments of Dracula's legend, including quite a bit of detail about the Ottoman empire and Eastern Europe in the fifteeth century. And as a bibliophile, I can always appreciate stories whose action forms around books and written texts. The inside front cover of my copy (paperback) shows a painting, presumably of Dracula, but I was disappointed to never see a visual representation of the dragon image that is the center of the mysterious books, and is the symbol of Dracula and the Order of the Dragon.