There’s a really terrific vampire story buried somewhere in The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s baggy, brainy debut, a historical thriller that garnered the author a whopping $2 million advance and is already being touted as The Da Vinci Code for smart people.
Is it? Kostova has certainly packed an enticing Da Vinci-like mess of occultism, dank old churches, and sophisticated international intrigue into this 642-page behemoth. But while devouring the Code was the work of a feverish, if unwholesome, afternoon — Dan Brown’s preposterous heroes never walk, they dash — Kostova’s garrulous, letter-writing academics meander across globe and centuries, postponing plot-sensitive discussions until, say, that leisurely trip to Tuscany when they can chat about bloodsucking freaks in a ”sun-washed piazza.” There are a few too many junctures when you wonder if Kostova is going anywhere with her travelogue, and not quite enough when you feel the urgent menace of her cerebral, ruby-lipped Dracula.
In 1972, while browsing in her father’s well-appointed library, the unnamed narrator, an American teenager living in Amsterdam, comes across a curious old book and a packet of yellowing letters addressed to ”My dear and unfortunate successor.” When she asks her father, a heretofore dull and overprotective diplomat named Paul, about her discovery, he begins an uncharacteristically thrilling tale. One night many years ago when he was a young graduate student, the volume unaccountably appeared on his library carrel. He tried to get rid of it, but when he returned to his carrel, there it was again. When he showed the book to his academic adviser, Bartholomew Rossi, he learned that Rossi had received a similar book, in a similar fashion, when he was a young man. The receipt of the book turned out to be a kind of curse vaguely linked to the 15th-century Romanian sadist Vlad Tepes. The real-life prince became known as Vlad the Impaler for the torture techniques he learned from the Ottomans, and later achieved immortality after Bram Stoker published his 1897 classic, Dracula. And, Rossi announced, ”Dracula — Vlad Tepes — is still alive.” After handing Paul a packet of notes, including some inscrutable maps, Rossi promptly vanished, leaving bloodstains on his blotter?and on the ceiling.
And so began Paul’s travels in pursuit of his mentor, an adventure that morphs into a bittersweet love story, overlaps with other quests, and eventually sweeps the narrator herself across a Travel + Leisure list of picturesque European locales in search of Dracula’s tomb. The characters wander from dusty old archive to archive, their pockets stuffed full of garlic, perusing crumbling volumes, analyzing creepy Balkan folk songs, and debriefing sage Eastern European elders who hoard ancestral secrets. Eventually, even the most patient reader may begin to tire of all this talking and touring.
I will reveal this much: There is indeed a rich payoff if you persist through the slow parts. But then again, this is a frigging vampire novel. There shouldn’t be slow parts.