Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Rating: 3 out of 5.

According to an article in The Guardian which you can read here, in 2004, the publishing rights to Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, were purchased for $2 million, an apparently unheard of amount for a debut author.  Published in 2005, the novel went straight to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.

When publishers put money and promotion behind a book, it seems to appear everywhere.  I’m sure publishing statistics prove out my “no shit Sherlock” assumption that this investment increases the likelihood people will see the book, hear about the book and therefore, read the book.  However, what makes me more curious is whether it increases the likelihood that people will rate the book more highly than they would if it didn’t receive such backing.  I noticed that when I looked up reviews on Goodreads, readers that had read the book when it first came out rated it largely 5 starts while readers who read the book more recently, rated it lower – usually 3 stars or less.  Interesting and something I need to research more before coming to a definitive conclusion but…interesting.

I’ve had this book on my shelves for a while and was prompted to finally read it because it fit a prompt for a reading challenge I am doing this year called Around The Year In 52 Books.  I needed something to prompt me to read more from my already full TBR shelves and was inspired by a friend who is doing a project called Revive 55  which is a 55 week project focused on preserving and enjoying memories through story-telling, photos, videos and mementos.  So I thought, why not an annual project related to books?  I found ATY In 52 books and have largely used books from my existing shelves to satisfy the 52 prompts of the challenge.  One of those prompts was to read a book with a two-word title where the first word is “The” and so, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was pulled from my shelves, dusted off and read in February.

Although I am not always a fan of pure historical fiction, I love a story that mixes historical fiction with a mystery, some thrills or some horror.  Reading the synopsis of a story that presumes Dracula is more than just a fictional character but is real and still terrorizing the world immediately reminded me of why I picked up this book in the first place.  Great premise!

Like Dracula by Bram Stoker, this story is largely an epistolary novel told in letters written by a number of key characters.  As well as being told from multiple perspectives via letters, the story takes place in three different time periods:  the 1970’s, the 1950’s and the 1930’s.  The book is long – my edition is 704 pages – and quite slow-paced so don’t expect the thrills to come one after the other in this book.  The writing is beautiful and the descriptions of the various cities and towns visited by the characters around the world are vivid and make you feel like you can taste and smell exactly what they are tasting and smelling at that point in time.

My criticism is really reserved for the 1950’s portion of the book which is told through letters from an historian-turned-diplomat father to his 16 year old daughter.  There is nothing that calls out the fact that these are letters other than quotation marks – lots of quotation marks…sometimes quotation marks within quotation marks.  Whereas the letters written by a Professor of Paul, the father, in 1930’s are clearly called out by the author through the use of italics and a date at the start of every letter, the 1950’s portion of the book which is the longest section, is not.  Remember this book is long so not something I read in one sitting.  I kept having to re-read a few pages every time I picked it up in order to get back in sync with the story.

Overall, I rated this book 3-stars which for me, is not a bad rating.  It just didn’t wow me.  The pace was slower than I felt it needed to be, the characters were a bit flat and with some of the letters not clearly being called out as such, there was a lack of continuity at times.  On the other hand, I like stories about books, libraries and researchers and this had all of those in spades.  

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Add yours

    1. Thanks so much for the comment! I didn’t realize publicize anything yet as I am still working through formatting and a bunch of other stuff. Starting up blogging is one of the projects you inspired me to start again so thank you!

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  1. Nice review. I read this when it came out and struggled with it a little. I liked most of the story but there seemed to be a lot of repetition and the pace was often glacial. I felt that the author would have benefitted from being challenged by a good editor. Fifteen years have gone by and I’ve never felt the urge to pick up another of her books.

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