My favorite section of Barnes and Noble is the "remainder" table. As I've noted before, I tend to freeze up when I'm confronted with an array of books in the $25-30 range, but a $5 book is no great risk. Sure, it's not the newest book on the market, but I've never been about the latest and greatest. I tend to avoid it, actually, and try to seek out the more hidden gems. But last time, I picked up an extremely hyped novel, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Let me tell you, the hype is well-deserved, maybe even understated, for the quality of this book.
Vampires, and Dracula in particular, have long fascinated authors and movie-makers. The current popularity of the Twilight series, the popularity of the Anne Rice books in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s, the multiple remakes and remixes of the Dracula story that hit theaters in the interim point to the ongoing power of the vampire to excite the imagination. I think it's because of all the mythical creatures, vampires are the most like us. Werewolves lose their intelligence when they transform. Frankenstein was cobbled together from household objects and dead bodies. Unicorns and dragons? Just more fantastic versions of horses and lizards. But vampires were once ordinary men and women, and retain some of their human characteristics while losing the one we all hate most: they will never die.
The Historian is a fantasy and a mystery for people who don't much like fantasy or mystery. I first heard about this book from a fantasy-loathing friend, who raved about it. He was also in graduate school with me, though, and the meticulous research that is an underlying theme of the book was probably what appealed to him. The plot is two stories nested together, and told through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl who was raised by her father. One night, she finds a curious book in his study, and he starts to tell her a remarkable tale, about his advisor Professor Rossi, who disappeared after telling him about finding a similar book, and his journey to find his advisor. Then, her father himself disappears in the middle of the night, with a note saying that he's gone to find her mother, whom he believed dead. The girl pursues her father by train, while uncovering the rest of the tale of his epic journey.
The first part of the book is a little slow, but it picks up rapidly when the girl's father Paul disappears. Elements of her pursuit of him echo his pursuit of Rossi over 20 years ago. Both have a partner in their hunt, who ultimately become lovers. Both visit out-of-the-way places in Europe. Both solve their respective mysteries through careful research and questioning, and the use of their intellectual powers. This gives a very realistic feel to what could have been an over-the-top fantasy.
Just seeing the places the characters visit makes it an enjoyable read. Paul and Helen (the narrator's parents) start in Istanbul and trek deep behind the Iron Curtain, through Helen's native Hungary and into the mountains of Bulgaria. They get to eat traditional meals, visit villages that haven't changed in centuries and participate in traditional celebrations. Paul and Helen are both strong characters, and their journey towards each other is enjoyable to watch. The book is a historical mystery, a supernatural mystery, a love story, and a travel story all at once.
But one of the most appealing devices is the mysterious book itself. Paul, Rossi and several other characters in the novel are bound together by the fantastic discovery of an ancient book in with their own possessions, with a woodcut of a dragon and the word "Drakulya". This is the item that begins each of their individual quests and fuels their research and travel despite the dangers faced along the way. It gets at the heart of the appeal of the vampire myth, and (I believe) of many other fantastic stories like the Harry Potter novels: the idea that one day, for better or for worse, you too could be chosen. That one day, in the middle of the most mundane tasks, the sudden appearance of a book, or a letter received, or a wardrobe opened might transform your ordinary life into something extraordinary. It's an idea that most of us buried deep in childhood, after we'd exhausted all the leads in our search for the gateway to Narnia, after the letter from Dumbledore should have arrived.
Most of the readers of The Historian will, of course, be too old now to actually believe in such things. But it's a fascinating feeling to remember, and I for one will surely examine the next pile of books I check out from the library a little more carefully, just in case.