When magazines talk about “beach” or “summer” reading, they usually mean those lovely, disposable books that are like candy for your brain: Quick-paced, breezily-plotted novels that keep you wondering what will happen next, but not to the extent that you can’t put them down for a no-holds-barred game of volleyball in the lake, or a quick trip to Dairy Queen for a dipped cone. This summer reading is for those with a short attention span; stories filled with plenty of whatever your particular poison is (dismembered corpses/things blowing up/explicit sex scenes between impossibly rich, terribly beautiful couples), but easily forgettable by the time you pick up the next book in the stack.
My summer reading, on the other hand, usually tends toward the idea of getting away – inside the intricately detailed world captured in the pages – or not, usually because I’m pinioned to the sand by the weight of the pages themselves. Seriously, it seems that if I can’t judge a book by its cover, the least I can do is pick it based on whether it’ll hold a heavy door open should I find myself with my hands full. I’m a fairly voracious reader year-round – the word “addiction” has been used by many, including myself, to describe my reaction to bookstores – but as the light stays later in the evenings and the humidity causes my hair miraculously to increase in volume, I find myself turning to the books that will transport me to another place and allow me to linger there for several hundred pages. These books are my vacation before I’ve even left the house, and like any vacation, I’m looking for the ones that will allow me to prolong the experience – both as I turn the actual pages, and even when I’m otherwise occupied – by fully realizing a time, or a location, or a set of emotions so clearly in my mind that I can revisit while I’m washing the dishes, or lying in bed at night after I’ve turned off the light but before sleep sneaks up on me.
When I read in Karen Valby’s June 23rd article in Entertainment Weekly that Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian was getting buzz as the next Da Vinci Code, my reaction was, “Eh.” The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, while certainly a page-turner, would never have lived up to my summer reading standards – even if it hadn’t been February when I read it – because of its shoddy writing. (It also probably didn’t help that at the time I read it I was on an extended stay in Florence, Italy, and one of my roommates was an art historian with some serious issues with the scholarship of the book.) After discovering, however, that The Historian’s author, Elizabeth Kostova, finished the book and made her residence in my home town, I became intrigued. And after reading that the book spanned four time periods, plus numerous centuries of European history, and clocked in at almost 650 pages, I knew it had moved to the top of summer reading list.
Did I mention that the book is also about Dracula?
Of the first several books that I read this summer, a few were exquisitely written, and all were quite brief – with the result that I was finding myself at the bookstore almost once a week, always a dangerous situation. It was with much anticipation, therefore, that I removed the slipcover, and opened my copy of The Historian for the first time. And it didn’t take me long to find an entryway into the story: Written in, first, alternating chapters and later, sections within a chapter, The Historian moves between present and past. Through the inclusion of recollection, correspondence, and scholarly research, the book simultaneously unfolds the story of three generations of pursuit, and of the quarry of all three, Dracula. By jumping around this way in time, the reader has to recreate the timeline, and make the often surprising resulting connections along with the narrator. And much like in the movie Memento, a character introduced at one point in the narrative will acquire a new resonance with the subsequent discovery of her past, or future. Which probably sounds much more confusing than it is. At heart, the story is about a girl’s search for her missing father, and his research into the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. It is told in such a way, however, that instead of simply being a passive observer, the reader is allowed to unravel the line of events as they loop back on themselves.
The book is not without its flaws. While generally well-written, the prose does tend a little too often to the purple. And when I, neither a historian nor accustomed to intensive research, am able to figure out several of the academic “mysteries” ahead of the protagonists, there may be a problem. The book is also rather (pardon the expression) bloodless. Kostova is quoted in Valby’s article as saying, “When I realized that it was going to be a creepy story, I promised myself that I wouldn’t shed more than a cup of blood in it.” Actual blood loss aside, a book does not become creepy merely by calling it that, and at the very least, I would expect a story about Dracula to carry with it a sense of dread.
More important to me than any of these drawbacks, however, was the fact that through libraries and churches across Eastern and Western Europe, through archivists and archaeologists and, yes, historians (most, if not all, of the characters in the book are discovered to be historians of one kind or another), a vision of a remote world, Byzantine and Ottoman, monastic and peasant, past and present is brought to life. Where The Da Vinci Code kept me wondering what would happen next, but invested only in the linear arc of the story, reading The Historian was like opening up a secret window onto an entire panorama: It left me wondering what would become, not only of the major players, but also of the vast cast of supporting characters – wondering if I could walk into a library in Prague one day and find a figure I had only seen previously in my own head hunched over a medieval woodcut. Wondering what might happen to me then.
Will this book be the next Da Vinci Code? Even with its problems, in strictly literary terms The Historian has, for me, already far surpassed Brown’s book. And as of June 24, almost two weeks after it was released, The Historian entered the New York Times’ bestseller list. The more accurate question, therefore, might be, will The Historian – a more complete book, but perhaps not as compelling – be able to pull off The Da Vinci Code’s 119 weeks and counting of remaining on the bestseller list? And only time can answer that question.