Review: The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

So, my mother’s church group is having a book drive and I have tons of books to purge and give away as it turns out.
 (I know, shock and horror. Why would I ever give away books?! It’s for a greater cause.)
indexWhile cleaning off my shelves, I came across The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. You might remember this book was a pretty big deal when it came out way, way back in 2005. It won several awards, shot straight to the top of the coveted Times best seller list, and was just all over the literary world for a while. And this was a debut! It wasn’t the first female written horror book I’d ever read, but it was the first one that had this much press and was this mainstream. In fact, my mom proudly presented me the book as soon as it came out wanting to know my thoughts on it pretty quickly, despite the size.
I was excited! A modern Gothic horror novel, with vampires. Written by a woman! I delved into the book over the summer immediately, completely bypassing any hype so I could have my own expectations.
So I read…and I read…and I read…then I stopped. Why? Because [stage whisper] I really, really didn’t like it.
Yes, I made it a heroic quarter of the way through before I realized this just wasn’t working out for me. I felt bad my mother spent money on a hardback that I wouldn’t finish, and when she asked me my thoughts I gave an uninterested shrug and said, “Well…it’s okay.” I felt even worse because, at the time, there were nothing but good reviews for the book to be found. Not even a wishy-washy one. Clearly, the best readers in the world enjoyed it so I was losing my mind, right?
Now, I’m not here to tell you that story nor am I here to tell you about a book I half-finished when I was a teenager. I want to talk about perspective and change. Years later in college, I wandered into the community kitchen and saw someone I vaguely knew reading a familiar book. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time by that point, but I asked her about it. We talked and I explained that I didn’t like it when I was younger and she told me she loved it. I was like, “hmm.” So, when I laid my hands on that dusty, naked book (I have a habit of removing my dust jackets) I thought, you know I didn’t give this a fair shake. I’m older now so maybe there’s concepts in the book I just didn’t get. And I’m finally ready to join the discussion group!
So, I went a few chapters back from where I left off to refresh my memory and finally finished the book. Right off the bat, I can tell you the imagery and story were still so strongly embedded in my head eleven (!) years later it didn’t take much to put me back into the world of The Historian. When I finally got to the end, it was pretty rewarding.
Surprise, turns out I didn’t hate the book as much as I thought. I do think part of it is due to just evolving in my reading habits and age, and in retrospect I feel back then my expectations were way too high. Even though I managed to avoid the first round of hype, I was still let down by unrealistic expectations. Now, older, I’ve tempered myself to reality so I enjoyed the story for what it is. Yes, it’s long but very well told with excellent descriptions of far away places and heavy, old world Gothic intrigue. And it’s a refreshingly traditional vampire story without excessive gore or even violence and sex. As a fan of Dumas and Indiana Jones, I really loved the travel and adventure, and the sense of danger around every corner with no super powers for protection.
However, even now I understand what put me off about the story at first. The characters–especially the Historian herself–struck me as … well, Mary Sues. Even before that term became overused. There seemed to be an awful lot of plot devices of pure convenience. The prose was good, but somehow purple and stiff at the same time. And there seemed to be a lot of shallow motivations. I think all of this just came together to annoy me a lot, but looking back on the story I realize a lot of those were just Gothic fiction tropes coming into play. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be taxing especially in a book so long. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the choice of narrator–a young girl, never named provides intrigue and was an interesting twist, but sometimes left me thinking it was … too unnecessarily mysterious. With all the other mysteries going on.
But still, hopefully young!me is relieved to have finally finished The Historian after all this time. I can understand why I didn’t enjoy it as much then, but I can definitely appreciate it a lot more now. Maybe after that, I’ll finally get around to finishing that Stephen King novel (long story). But, now that my mission is accomplished, I think I’ll give up The Historian so someone else can discover it over what’s left of the summer! And if you want a copy of your own, try here.