three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-HistorianThe hero of this sprawling novel is the eponymous historian Paul who, as a grad student in the 1950s, gets hooked on the story of Dracula. When Paul’s dissertation advisor, who suspects that Dracula is still alive and kicking, suddenly disappears, Paul embarks on a quest to find his mentor. Years later, the all-grown-up grad student, now a father, disappears on another quest; this time, his daughter, the unnamed narrator of The Historian, goes in search of him. And she wants to know the truth: about Dracula, about her father’s vampiric passions, and about why her mother left her. A tense and surprising climax brings together the novel’s many threads.
Little, Brown. 642 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0316011770

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"The Historian certainly is one terrific and fascinating read. … Twists, turns, a series of grisly murders and moments of terror make The Historian a deftly crafted, thrilling page-turner of a vampire novel, worthy to stand beside other classics of the genre—Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and Anne Rice’s brilliant Interview with a Vampire." Victoria A. Brownworth

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Historian is a hefty volume that is almost impossible to put down. It is an atmospheric thriller with an improbable-but-plausible plot, exotic locations, multidimensional characters and an engaging style that unobtrusively hooks and then reels in the reader."
Brian Richard Boylan

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] late-night page-turner that will be sure to make you lose some precious hours of sleep. It is a sprawling piece of work, the kind of novel that supposedly doesn’t get published anymore."
June Sawyers

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lovers of the new genre of bibliophile mysteries will find much to cozy up to. While there are certainly encounters with vampires, there are more encounters with books." Peter Bebergal

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It takes more than a little concentration to follow the story, especially as letters become layered within letters, and especially when the narrator all but disappears in the middle of the book. … Kostova’s thorough research and lively narrative will compel many in search of a good story, richly told and not soon forgotten." Jessica Treadway

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She eventually bogs down in her own cleverness, but mercifully, The Historian does not recycle old Anne Rice tricks. For a debut, this is a smart, thickly textured, suspense novel." Jerome Weeks

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"[A]n ambitious, albeit overlong suspense-horror novel. … Fans of the antiquarian romance—in which personable modern scholars encounter ancient conspiracies—will compare this novel to such books as Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Lawrence Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary, and, inevitably, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code."
Michael Dirda

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Kostova handles the logistics of multiple story lines well, though unfortunately her narrators all speak in the same hyper-descriptive, overwrought prose. They’re all somewhat disembodied—brains in jars, not quite fully realized." Jon Fasman

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"No one of Ms. Kostova’s travelogue episodes (of Romania, Hungary and Turkey, among other places) is any more expendable than the others; it’s just that the cumulative effect of so much tourism is smothering. Only occasionally does the book deliver the kind of jolt that explains its prematurely inflated reputation." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

As almost every review of Kostova’s debut novel points out, The Historian was ten years in the making—ten years and a $2 million advance. There’s already a movie deal, and sales of translation rights into almost every imaginable language. But reviewers disagree about whether Kostova deserves all the hoopla. While some critics are clearly riveted and can’t put the book down, others insist that the book is too long by half and that the shifting narration—from the unnamed daughter, to epistles, to snatches of memoir, and back again—is ham-handed. The bottom line? The book has been slightly over-hyped; it’s too long, too convoluted, but is full of adventures (and books) in beautiful places.

Cited by the Critics

Lemprière’s Dictionary | Lawrence Norfolk (1992): Award Star 1992 Somerset Maugham Award. We’ve seen plenty of literary mystery lists—Umberto Eco is usually at the top—but when Michael Dirda of The Washington Post cited Lemprière’s Dictionary, we have to admit, we didn’t know it. Dirda had mentioned the book five years ago in a column in which he pondered why some great books find an audience while others fall into obscurity: "While Americans found they could live without a thrilling historical mystery, Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk, the Germans bought it as though it were the new John Grisham. Yet only a few years later, Iain Pears’s similar and even longer An Instance of the Fingerpost found both acclaim and bestsellerdom on these shores. Why did Pears succeed and Norfolk stumble?"

So what’s the novel about? Among other things, Norfolk explores the connection between the founding of the East India Company, the siege of La Rochelle, and John Lemprière’s dictionary of classical mythology. Throw in feuds, multinational financial conspiracies, and characters from all walks of life to complete the mix. We haven’t tackled it yet, so let us know what you think.