Currently reading: The Historian

Currently Reading: The Historian

I’ve started reading from my Big Book Summer stack and thought it might help keep me on track to write a weekly post about what I’m reading. I’ve selected Monday for this honor.

First up: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

As I mentioned in my signup post for the challenge, I read The Historian when it first came out in 2005. There was a ton of hype around the novel’s release due to the $2 million advance the author received. Also, I used to be very critical over how people used the Dracula legend/Bram Stoker’s novel, so I remember my first reading being a bit of a mixed experience.

In 2016, I wrote this on Goodreads: “Started out great, but lagged toward the end. It lacked body and seemed to be more of an outline, but even years after reading this novel I’ve thought about some of the scenes and often think about re-reading this one.”

I’m not sure what I meant by “an outline.” Perhaps that was just my memory playing tricks on me because the edition I’m currently reading is 676 pages of step-by-step details of the characters’s research and adventures. Definitely not an outline.

This second reading is a bit of a slow burn, but enjoyable. I’m currently on page 265, so about 40% into the novel. I remember hardly anything about the story, so it is like reading the novel for the first time. There is one scene that I do remember and I look forward to getting to it.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this novel is how history is used. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs. I like the way Kostova mixes together time, place, architectural styles, factual historical horrors, and vampire mythology:

“Saint Mary’s Church, my father said, was a homely little piece of Victoriana that lingered at the edge of the old section of campus. I’ve passed it hundreds of times without ever going in, but it seemed to me now that a Catholic church was the right companion for all these horrors. Didn’t Catholicism deal with blood and resurrected flesh on a daily basis? Wasn’t it expert in superstition? I somehow doubted that the hospitable plain Protestant chapels that dotted the university could be much help; they didn’t look qualified to wrestle with the undead. I felt sure those big square Puritan churches on the town green would be helpless in the face of a European vampire. A little witch burning was more in their line — something limited to the neighbors” (148).

Kostova, Elizabeth. The Historian: A Novel. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009. Print.

Although not named in the novel, it seems clear to me from other scenes that the campus is Yale and so the town green mentioned above would be New Haven, which is bordered by three big Protestant churches. The characters are in New England and there’s a mention of someone going to Hartford. And then there’s this description of the campus library:

“This library, build in the highest of high Gothic-revival styles about the time that Rossi was finishing his studies at Oxford (where he was surrounded by the real thing, of course), had always appealed to me as both beautiful and comical. To reach the main desk, I had to hurry up a long cathedral nave. The circulation desk stood where the altar would have been in a real cathedral, under a mural of Our Lady — of Knowledge, presumably — in sky blue robes, her arms full of heavy tomes. Checking out a book there had all the sanctity of taking communion” (120).

Eugene F. Savage's oil mural at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Photo by Chris Wolak.
Eugene F. Savage’s oil mural at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. Photo by Chris Wolak, 2016.

This describes Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library to a T. Since The Historian was published, the circulation desk has changed and the card catalogs (mentioned in another scene) are gone, but “Our Lady” still presides over the entry way to the stacks (the subjects and floors of which are also accurately used in the novel). The character Rossi, mentioned above, finished his studies in the early 1930s and that is when the Sterling opened in 1931.

It’s fun to ID places in a book that are not directly named. Seeing as how I hadn’t yet visited New Haven or the Sterling Memorial Library back in 2005, these locations described in the novel are not places I would have picked up on during my first reading.


The Big Book Summer Challenge is hosted by Sue Jackson at Book by Book.

2 comments

  1. I also read this when it was first published. My boss at the time bought it for me (long story), but… it seems to be one of the books that got lost when I moved house. Still, I remember a whole lot, and while these types of books aren’t really my thing, I did enjoy it. (I think there’s a review of it on my blog.)

    • Hi Davida! I finished re-reading it and enjoyed it very much the second time around. There was SO much that I didn’t remember, but the scene I did remember still gave me great joy (when you know who asks someone to do you know what — trying to avoid a spoiler for those who haven’t read the novel and might see this comment). I’ll check out your blog!

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