Monday, September 23, 2013

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova Read Along Part 1

This year my participation in R.I.P. VIII is somewhat limited as I only have time for this Read Along. However, you can find links to everyone else’s posts at The Estella Society.

So far we have read up to the end of Chapter 40 (it is quite a long book!).

1. What do you think of the structure of the novel? It’s a story within a story (sort of within a story). We have Professor Rossi’s storyline, Paul’s reflections, and the daughter’s adventures. And letters. There’s a lot going on!

This technique increases the feel of a historian uncovering pieces of evidence about an event, which seems appropriate because of the title and the professions of several of the protagonists. However, it does also produce two major problems.

Firstly, it slows the narrative a great deal. Some might argue that this structure allows us to follow both journeys in parallel so that we can presumably have all the ‘big reveals’ at the end of the book. Personally, I find it a little bloated and I wish that the narrative of the earlier timelines had been entirely restricted to letters or documents read by the narrator. It is almost as if the author could not decide which story was more important and so she tried to ‘cover all her bases’.  

Secondly, it never allows us to address the problem of unreliable narrative. Although almost all the people we deal with are academics, and shown to be highly successful in their respective fields, we see very little critical thinking on display. There are passing remarks about how they would normally distrust such bizarre accounts, but that they trust the source and therefore believe every word as the honest truth. This lack of scholarly vigor is somewhat irritating and creates a house of cards based on very little direct evidence and a lot of opinion.

2. What are your thoughts on Helen’s characterization? Have you warmed to her?

As a person who was highly unimpressed by the man who would become my husband when we first met, I can relate to Paul’s changing opinions of Helen. However, I would be much happier if he simply said that she was the mother of his child, instead of hinting at it repeatedly. I also thought that striking resemblance between her and Dracula was done in a rather heavy-handed way. I presume that Helen’s mother will reveal (shock, horror!) that she is a descendent of the great man, as are Helen and the narrator. These hints would work more successfully if the narration had been written at the time that it occurred. However, it is recorded many years after the important points have been revealed to Paul so it comes across as clumsy.

Helen seems like the most practical and straightforward of our lead characters, so I liked her from the beginning. Unlike Paul, who shows a great deal of cowardice and over-protection in his handling of his daughter, Helen is fairly fearless and willing to do whatever is necessary.

3. What do you think of the peripheral characters? Are their motivations pure? I’m thinking of Turget, Helen’s family members, etc.

There seems to be very little gray in the matter of the secondary characters: they are either good or bad. Although I can admire Turget, Eva and Barley and their determination to help our protagonists, I do feel as if they are a little too nice and perfect. This leads to a lack of conflict and negotiation amongst the characters, which is unfortunate because it makes them a little too two-dimensional. It also adds to the feeling that they are simply there to move the plot along.

4. Other thoughts on this book?

There is an awful lot of excess detail in this book, which is starting to get in the way of the plot. I can appreciate the exacting research that has obviously been conducted and the author does paint some wonderfully evocative portraits of the places that our narrators visit. However, they visit so many places that I am beginning to get rather fed up of the endless descriptions. I honestly do not need to know about what they eat or what the decor is like in their hotel every time they stay somewhere. I feel as though the book’s editor should have been much aggressive with their red pen.


  1. It made me smile to read you were unimpressed with your husband on first impression, as often is the case. And the hints scattered throughout the novel are many, and sometimes broad, but not so much to lead us where it's going. In fact, this is a reread for me, and I'm still finding myself startled at some of the revelations. Can't wait to discuss this in the end!

    1. Unimpressed is actually quite a polite way to put it . . . :D

      At the moment I have an idea who 'The Historian' of the title might be, but I have few predictions to make about the rest of the book, which is why I am intrigued to find out what happens.

  2. I totally get your point about lack of scholarly vigor and simply trusting facts/people. While I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I first read it a few years ago, I was also aware that I had to suspend my disbelief on this point, being a scientist by training and education myself. Sometimes I still find myself wanting to tell the main characters to cross check that fact...but since so many of the documents are standalones, it would be hard for them to do so. Or so I rationalize to myself so I can enjoy the story.

    Yeah, there is a lot of detail isn't there? While I could do with less location description, I do enjoy the food description. Makes me want to break out a Hungarian or Romanian cookbook. Yum.

    1. As well as my Biology degree I also have a BA in Classical Studies, so I am used to the assessment of source material and deciding what it really says and whether or not it can be trusted. This means that I find the academics in the book very frustrating - I know that I could never have got away with such sloppy research in my studies, and I wasn't a Graduate student! But, like you, I am willing to overlook their apparent doziness to read the story.

      I think that the detail is well written, just that there is too much of it. Did we really need to go to several different locations for Paul's tale to be recounted, with accompanying details of travel, countryside, weather, activities, etc, etc? Sometimes less is more and I hate skimming, so I am stuck reading it all. :(

  3. I love a good story within a story but there may be a bit too much going on here to make this technique 100% for this book.


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