In case you didn’t recognize the dripping blood over the undead peeking through on the cover, I’ll warn you immediately that this is a long novel (656 pages in hardcover; 26+ hours stuck in the ears, judiciously read by Justine Eyre and Paul Michael) about a nightmare-inducing familiar character, although he actually doesn’t get much direct page time. This Draculean (can I say that?) epic is a mishmash of history, time-hopping multi-generational family saga, epistolary mystery, coming-of-age bildungsroman, and sanguineous gorefest, all in one.
Allow me to attempt a skeletal overview. A motherless teenage girl (we never get her name), who is American by birth but living in 1970s Amsterdam, discovers mysterious papers dated from the 1930s in her father’s library, all addressed to ”My dear and unfortunate successor.” She will spend the rest of the book listening, learning, sleuthing to understand them.
Her diplomat father, Paul, is said ‘successor,’ a historian by training, now running The Center for Peace and Democracy. Jump back to the 1950s when Paul was an earnest graduate student, and his mentor/advisor, Professor Rossi, mysteriously disappeared from his office leaving only a pool of blood. Paul joins forces with a just-met fellow (foreign) graduate student, the mysterious Helen Rossi (go ahead, make assumptions with the repeated last name), and the pair travel through Istanbul, various cities and villages in Hungary and Bulgaria, searching for the missing academic.
In the midst of Paul and Helen’s travels, time flits back another two decades when the elder Rossi made his journeys through Istanbul, Romania, and Greece. Some of his travels he remembers, some have been lost to a “local specialty called, whimsically, amnesia.”
In case you hadn’t guessed as yet, all that criss-crossing mileage moves toward one goal: finding the tomb of the monstrous Vlad the Impaler who died some 500 years ago, his head severed from his body (I did warn gorefest) in hopes that he might stay dead. He’s also known by all sorts of other names, including … yes, Dracula.
Kostova’s research alone is quite the accomplishment as she blends fact and fiction with seamless ease. She probably did not, however, need to share every last learned detail; by the time Paul and Helen reach Bulgaria (about 2/3 of the way through), their journey is laboriously bogged down with manuscripts, letters, translations, an expressive tilt of the head too many. The daughter’s framing story is more tedious interruption than necessary to the plot; she wasn’t even worth naming, ahem! And, not to nitpick too much, but Kostova’s constant clarification of phrases with an endless repetition of “in any case …” quickly grew irksome (at least 29 such repeats, egads!). The temptation to skip tracks was so great, I took to reading the page (my eyeballs move faster), but I confess switching mediums did little to alleviate the boredom that overshadowed through book’s end.