The Historian

24 Oct

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Last night, I dreamed Dracula poisoned my dog. I don’t really have a dog nor do I believe in Dracula, but apparently Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian has left a deeper impression on my subconscious than I realized.

 

Earlier in the evening, I had attended my monthly book club meeting to discuss Kostova’s novel with my friends. Our hostess provided a Hungarian dinner with spicy goulash, a pungent cucumber salad, and a really garlicky flat bread that was enough to protect us all from the local vampires! Yum! For dessert we had apple strudel from the hostess’ favorite German deli. Oh how I love books, food, and friends all mixed together along with such stimulating conversation! It is truly one of the small pleasures of life that I relish.

 

As for the book, I have to say that I didn’t take pleasure in it at first. If I hadn’t been reading it for my book club, I might have lost interest in it, put it down, and never picked it up again. But I was determined to get through the 642 pages in order to preserve my honor with my girlfriends. Thank goodness I persevered because in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this literary novel once I figured out what was going on. The first read through, I was twenty chapters into the book when I realized I was entirely lost. With all the flipping back and forth between characters, locations, and time frames, I didn’t know who was having what experience where. I ended up calling a friend in my book club and she straightened me out. This is definitely not a book one can read in a distracted state of mind I learned—it requires the full attention of the reader. I decided to start all over, this time taking copious notes so I could track the complex plot. Thirty-three pages later, I can say that taking notes was the only way I was able to navigate this book successfully.

 

Having said that, I think the book was well written and the impeccable research was what made the story plausible. For readers who love books, libraries, history and scholarship, this book is for you.  No doubt, the book was demanding in many ways, but this intricacy is what I felt made the read so satisfying for me in the end. Reading two novels back to back, both with nameless protagonists, was taxing on me as a reader, but it really placed me in the protagonist’s shoes. Kostova says she left her protagonist “unnamed as a literary experiment” She “wanted to see if [she] could give her a full personality without the handle of a name.” I think she accomplished that goal successfully.

There were times when I felt the book was overly heavy on the research–like the author was trying to include every fact she had ever uncovered about Vlad Tepes. At times, I found myself wondering, Are all these details necessary and significant? But shortly after asking myself that question, I could see that yes, everything the author included did enhance or propel the plot forward. Personally, I think The Historian is a work of genius. In this day and age, it is rare to find such depth in contemporary fiction. I applaud Kostova wholeheartedly for taking the time to write such a well-researched historical novel.

 

I’ve discovered after searching around on the internet that Elizabeth Kostova is a woman after my own heart. She pursued an MFA while she was writing The Historian! One of my friends mentioned that she thought she was a mother of three children, too which would definitely place her on my nomination list for the Brainy Mama Hall of Fame. I’d love to meet this woman sometime. I wonder if she’s coming to Denver anytime soon?

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Apparently, it took Kostova ten years to write this book so it sounds like she is a “slow cooker” writer like me. I’m always interested in the process of writing and this is what Kostova said about her experience in writing The Historian:

 I just wrote whenever I could. Each day, I looked at the next day’s schedule and tried to figure out where I could find time to write. Sometimes that was 20 minutes in a day, and I wrote what I could get done in 20 minutes. Sometimes that was four hours, and that was blissful. I really had to learn to be very flexible.I think in a way that was a great lesson for me.

Sometimes I had to get up very early in the morning. One summer, I was working hard and I wrote from 5 to 7:30 every morning. Often I wrote late at night. For instance, if I was on a trip I took a notebook and wrote a scene or two long hand. I wrote in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, red lights… wherever I could. 

I love it! (We could be kindred writing spirits, Elizabeth and I!) She also enjoys reading many of the same authors I do and seems to have a similar reading style to mine. She says:

I’m always reading something. I’m kind of an undisciplined reader in that I’m always reading three or four things. I read rather slowly. I tend to read for craft and for the pleasure of language as much story.

Kostova is only four years older than me and has led the enviable traveling and scholarly life that I’ve always dreamed of. (Sigh!) But she has also paid the price to write an engaging novel and that is inspiring to me. Her efforts paid off with a 2 million dollar contract, movie rights, and her book translated into 28 languages. I’m not fond of gore or horror, but Kostova’s suspenseful, tasteful, and historical novel turned out to be the perfect intellectual read for October.

  

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