The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I’m in Boston right now!  Well, really Newton, but I flew into Boston.  Came here for work on Tuesday and I’m leaving tomorrow morning.  I’ve been able to catch up on my reading while on the plane here and also in the middle of the last three nights while I was up until 2:00am or 3:00am somehow still jetlagged.

I borrowed The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova about a month ago when Jack and I checked out the Santa Clara library for the first time.  I hadn’t been to a library for years, and this one was pretty awesome.  Way back in middle school the library I went to in Idaho had self-checkout machines, but I thought it was cool that the ones at the Santa Clara library uses RFIDs instead of scanning the barcodes.  It was kind of funny to watch Jack trying and failing to check out his book by carefully lining the barcode under the light, and then me just taking it from him and doing it for him by just throwing the book randomly on the machine.

I started in the fiction section first, which is where I picked up The Historian.  My method of selecting books is to go down each aisle one side at a time and just scan for interesting titles.  If there’s an interesting title, I pick it up and look at the cover and description on the back.  If the book still has my attention, then I’ll flip through and read a few paragraphs just to make sure I like the author’s writing style.  Kind of a superficial way of selecting books, but with so many choices in a library there’s not really a more efficient way to do it!

I decided to borrow The History because the back cover description made it sound like a mystery, and I like mysteries.  I’ve also realized lately that I like historical fiction, which is what this also sounded like.  When I got home and started reading, I was surprised to discover it was about Dracula.  I couldn’t figure out for a while how I could miss the main subject of the book, but  then I realized that there was a library barcode covering part of the back cover description and I never read the “praise” quotes on books, which both referenced Dracula and vampires.  At least it was a good surprise!

I really liked this book.  It’s historical fiction but written from the point of view of historians in a (relatively) modern time studying history, in this case about Dracula, rather than from the point of view of those periods in history themselves.  This was pretty cool to me, because they were unraveling a mystery through research of different historical sources, and it spanned hundreds of years.  Although it was fiction it was fascinating to see the small links and references the author created throughout time.

Another reason I really liked this book is because of the way the story is told.  There’s the story of the main character, which is told in first-person, but then you find out the rest of the story with her through the stories and letters of multiple people, which are all interweaved, both in who the story/letter is from and in time.  They’re also presented in chunks that are exciting and fun to read, but also leave you hanging and waiting for more.  I haven’t read a book in a long time like this, where I ended each chapter wanting to immediately jump to the next no matter how late it was or where I needed to be.

My only problem with the book was that the telling of the story through letters wasn’t 100% believable to me.  In the case of the letters from her dad, they were worded too much like a novel – too much detail, too many exact quotes, too specific about exactly how he felt, too intimate.  The letters were supposed to be written years after the events happened and written for his daughter to read – I really can’t imagine a person remembering exactly what every single person said, or even telling his daughter about how he and her mother spent their time together in a  hotel.  After a while I forgot it was a letter and just treated it as a first-person part of the book, but the fact that it was a letter from her dad was pretty important, so I don’t think that was the intended reaction.  To be fair, it would have been really hard to tell the story without giving that much detail.

It’s been hard to write this, because I have no idea how much I can say without giving things away.  I suck at writing reviews…

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