“I’m pretty sure Dracula is sending people letters.”
That was how I was introduced to Elizabeth Kostova. I was working at a golf course with my best friend and we were stuck string trimming around the trees to make everything look nice and pretty for the early-morning golfers. Why would Dracula send someone letters?
“It might not be him,” my friend explained. “But someone wants to find Dracula, and it seems like a bad idea. Because I’m pretty sure he’s real.”
That was all I needed to jump into Kostova’s debut novel.
This is one of those books you can’t put down, and it’s both a positive and a negative. Let’s do the positive first: Kostova’s debut novel is absolutely fantastic. Right away, you’re thrust into an obsessive quest that spans generations. The main character is an unnamed woman who narrates the story, but through her interactions with family members and their historical documents, the narration shifts (pretty flawlessly), layering story upon story. It goes all the way back to the age of Vlad the Impaler and his enemies’ obsessive quest to locate his final resting place. Part mystery, part historical novel, part horror, every new layer of the story brings the narrator one step closer to Dracula himself. It’s almost impossible to put down.
Now the downside: it’s almost impossible to put down because every. Single. Chapter. Ends on a hook. You can blame The DaVinci Code for this, which at the time was still selling a gazillion copies. The DaVinci Code ushered in an obsession with hanging plots that went out of their way to turn the end of every chapter into a cliffhanger. It’s poison, and it’s infuriating because, in the case of the excellent The Historian, it suffocates Kostova’s phenomenal story.
I never read this book. The description didn’t appeal to me at all, but I tried anyway and just couldn’t get into it. I tried hard, because I went to an Elizabeth Kostova reading when it came out. She came to a bookstore in Madison, and there were a dozen people in attendance. It was a depressing eye-opener about the publishing world: even Kostova, whose first book was absolute fire, could fall victim to the sophomore slump. Whether the book is good is up to other readers–all I can say is it wasn’t enough to pack a bookstore in a generally book-loving city. But it was wonderful to hear Kostova talk and read from it anyway, and I cherish this memory.
This is Kostova’s masterpiece. Even though I liked her debut novel more, I can’t deny the beauty of this book. Alexandra Boyd, through an unlikely circumstance, finds herself in the possession of a box that contains the ashes of a famous Bulgarian musician. Her quest to return the ashes, however, leads her into danger as she uncovers a dark stain on the city’s past. Historical novels like this work best when the mystery is rooted in something deeper, and Kostova does a brilliant job of shining a light on an oppressive period of history so terrible and frightening that its horrors bleed into every chapter of the narrative. Boyd is in danger because simply knowing the truth is dangerous.
Reading a book like this, I found myself constantly asking why. Why would leaders in power do such horrible things to their own people. I don’t think any one book can answer that question, but I do think reading about other cultures helps you develop the empathy to understand on a level that most people can’t comprehend. In the end, it doesn’t answer that crucial question (why?) because most of us are good, decent human beings. But seeing how such oppression affects different people is some of the most valuable knowledge we can acquire.