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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The fact remains that she is but a woman, subject to the higher will of men."
Though I'd heard of Karen Essex, before "Stealing Athena" I had never read one of her novels. I was inspired to read this one because of the many mentions of the Elgin marbles in Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily mystery series and have always been interested in the controversy surrounding the huge amount of many (other countries') national treasures that reside in the British...
Published on June 21, 2008 by Lilly Flora

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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overburdened with details
Stealing Athena tells the story of two women, Aspasia, courtesan to Pericles, the famous politician who spent his lifetime seeing that beautiful monuments to the Gods were built in Greece; and Mary Elgin whose husband Robert Elgin would spend many years of his life trying to bring all of Greece's art to England. Through these women's eyes we learn of all that went into...
Published on March 16, 2009 by Ladyslott


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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The fact remains that she is but a woman, subject to the higher will of men.", June 21, 2008
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Though I'd heard of Karen Essex, before "Stealing Athena" I had never read one of her novels. I was inspired to read this one because of the many mentions of the Elgin marbles in Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily mystery series and have always been interested in the controversy surrounding the huge amount of many (other countries') national treasures that reside in the British museum and so picked up this novel. All I can say is I enjoyed this so much that I am supremely happy to have found the first three Essex novels and added them on my too read stack.

"Stealing Athena" is a divided novel telling the story of two young, smart and custom defying women who where heavily involved in the history of the Parthenon and the amazing sculptures which adorned it. Mary Elgin, the wife of Lord Elgin who harvested the marbles and brought them back to England and Aspasia, consort of Perikles who was responsible for funding and getting permission for the building of the Parthenon in the 5th century BC. But these women have more in common than the great structure-both are attached to men who sought an immortal glory-Perikles through the building of the Parthenon and Lord Elgin in the dismantling and "preservation" of it. And both find themselves struggling between the conventions of the time and their own personal happiness.

We start with Mary, Lady Elgin, who is the focus of the book in third person. A newly married young woman on her way to Constantinople where her husband is to be the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Mary believes her marriage to be a love match. She doesn't know that her husbands seemingly innocent goal of making drawings and molds of the Greek artifacts on the Acropolis will soon become an obsession and search for immortal glory that will place her own health and wellbeing, along with that of her growing brood, at great risk and may destroy their marriage.

Aspasia tells of her life with Perikles in Athens in first person. As a foreigner to the city Perikles is forbidden by a law he himself created to marry her, but their lives are filled with love and lively conversation. And as a "courtesan" instead of a proper wife Aspasia has freedom that most women in Athens do not-the freedom to move about the city freely, to attend men's parties, to give advice on marriage to men seeking wives and claim the title of philosopher. But her level of freedom insults the good people of Athens and even Perikles cannot protect her from banishment if she is convicted by citizens resentful of her and her lover of a crime...

Though it beautiful illustrates the creation of the Parthenon and the beauty it was have held both in its infancy and later degraded state, the main theme in this novel is the difference in how men and women seek immortality. Mary and Aspasia are content with their children though they both find the marbles exquisite but Perikles and Elgin are determined to do whatever it takes in order to create (or preserve) monuments that will last long beyond their own deaths. It is also a scathing commentary on the amount of freedom allowed to women and the scorn that falls from society when they out step their given bounds-even with a time difference of over 2,000 years.

I wonder what Athena would have thought about that?

In addition "Stealing Athena" perfectly satisfied my curiosity to know the circumstances surrounding the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England. While I can't say I believe they belong in England instead of Greece, it is clear that without the removal they either would have been destroyed for building materials or removed by Napoleon (which would have saved them also so I guess that would have been fine.)

All in all this is an incredibly enjoyable novel that not only describes the creation, history and preservation of the world's greatest monuments but of two amazing women who had a great deal to do with it. I highly recommend this to fans of ancient history, more modern history, women's history, Greek history and anything to do with antiquities

Five stars.

Now I get to go and read Essex's other novels!
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overburdened with details, March 16, 2009
Stealing Athena tells the story of two women, Aspasia, courtesan to Pericles, the famous politician who spent his lifetime seeing that beautiful monuments to the Gods were built in Greece; and Mary Elgin whose husband Robert Elgin would spend many years of his life trying to bring all of Greece's art to England. Through these women's eyes we learn of all that went into building the Parthenon, a temple to Athena and all that went into the deconstruction of the Parthenon 2000 years later, when Lord Elgin removed many of the marble friezes and had them sent to England, where they are today, known as The Elgin Marbles.

I should have loved this book, as I am a huge fan of historical fiction, particularly those focusing on ancient Rome and Greece, and those set in Victorian England. I was however disappointed in this book. The two stories did not seem to mesh well together and none of the characters came alive for me. The writing was often so descriptive, with so many minor details, the story would lose momentum. I never really cared for anyone in the book and struggled to finish reading it. At over 450 pages, what this book needed was a good editor to tighten up the story.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Almost put it down... where was the editor?, July 14, 2009
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This review is from: Stealing Athena (Paperback)
I was eager to read about a topic of which I had no previous knowledge, but this story starts and continues well into the middle of the book as a typical historical romance. The author is obviously painting her subject in the best light possible, just as the literature of the day painted her as evil.

I ended up skipping the chapters that were Aspasia's (enjoyable, but they got in the way), and read them after finishing Mary's story, which finally grew compelling in the latter half of the book. In spite of the endless description of the art and and the troubles it brings, this story finally got me as the arc of a marriage and how it dies.

Worth reading, but it was a chore through the first half.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A million little details, March 3, 2009
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This book started out well enough. In the first few chapters I liked Mary and was intrigued by Elgin. By the time I was half way through with the book, however, I was not only bored to tears but irritated as well.

The boring part: this is based on the true story of the removal of several Greek sculptures (the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Interesting...right? Should be....but the author's reliance on huge chunks of clunky dialogue to convey the history of the sculptures makes it boring in the extreme. Ms. Essex obviously did her homework: every detail about the sculptures creation in ancient Athens, their eventual removal to England, and the personal lives of Elgin, Mary, Perikles and Aspasia, is somehow squeezed into the overburdened plot, usually through unrealistic wordy dialogue.

The irritating part: With very few exceptions every man who lays eyes on Mary falls instantly in love or lust with her: Capitan Pasha, the Sultan, Sebastiani, Ferguson. Because they all played a part in the history of the Elgin Marbles, they all parade into the plot, they fall in love with or lust after Mary, and then, with the exception of Ferguson, they all parade out never to be heard from again. Since the author spent so much time on these characters I kept expecting and hoping they would reappear (they were also much more interesting than the main characters). It was contrived in the extreme.

Not a good example of historical fiction. Should have saved my money and googled the Elgin Marbles instead.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lots of history - but no living characters, December 17, 2008
This novel is the latest entry in the genre that proclaims that behind every mediocre man in history was an equally mediocre woman. Here we have the story of Lord Elgin, chiefly remembered for removing the ancient marble sculptures and friezes that decorated the Parthenon in Athens and transporting them to the British Museum where they remain today. The Greeks are still trying to get them back. This book examines Elgin's story from the point of view of Mary, his feisty Scottish wife.
We also get the story of Pericles who oversaw the construction of the Acropolis from the point of view of his fesity Greek lover Aspasia.
The author knows a lot of history and reams of it are laid out in this overlong saga. We get cameo appearances by Napoleon and his chief diplomat Talleyrand; we get exhaustive descriptions of Ottoman society and titillating glimpses into life in the harem; we get insights into early 19th century medicine and childbirth; we get cameo appearances from Lord Nelson and his lover, Lady Hamilton. But it's all dead -- as dead and cold as the marbles in the British Museum.
Unfortunately, none of the characters come to life. The writing is dull and wordy and feels staid. There seems little evidence of editing and even fewer of real human insight.
Take this example from page 178: Mary has just undergone a difficult birth and now she fears she is dying. The author shares her thoughts at this climactic moment with us, the readers:
"Mary was shaking so hard that she could not make out what he (the doctor) was saying to the midwife, but she knew it was to do with the bleeding that followed the afterbirth ... Perhaps she would die after all. The inside of her froze with the thought but the outside still shivered uncontrollably. What would happen? She tried to dismiss her fears. What would the Lord want her to believe? She had lived a good life and her children would be well cared for. It was all one could ask of a mortal lifetime. Many were not as fortunate as she. For the multitudes, life was short and brutal. She, Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, had lived a brief but privileged and exciting life. These were good thought to think as she felt the doctor push against the place inside her that seemed to be gushing obscene amounts of blood."
I defy any one to say this passage is either realistic or moving or well-written or exciting or interesting in any way.
Sorry to be so tough but as the author herself says, "life is short and brutal" -- too short to spend on this.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Do you honestly think the Olympic gods are taking revenge?", June 17, 2008
This new novel by author Karen Essex follows two tracks, the marriage of a young woman to a handsome, titled man beginning an ambassadorship in 1799 to Constantinople and his endeavors to save the great Greek artifacts, returning the fruits of his work for the edification of British art and the Golden Age of Athens. Set during the Napoleonic conflicts with France, Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin of Scotland, taps into his wife's considerable fortune to outwit Napoleon, who harbors the same scheme for the acquisition of these priceless Greek antiquities. The other focus of the novel is centuries earlier, in the Golden Age of Athens, where Pericles is responsible for amassing artistic treasures, most notable the Acropolis, defining Greece as the center of art and philosophy, as well as the short history of the woman who walks by his side, philosopher Aspasia, who becomes Pericles' consort, prevented from marriage as a foreigner by Greek law. The lives of these two women, Lady Elgin and Aspasia, form a tragic parallel as they learn the lessons of history.

While both women, reflect the difficult circumstances of females in male-dominated society, the author's attention, and rightly so, is primarily on twenty-one year old Mary Hamilton Nesbit Bruce, as she follows the precise dictates of society, supporting her husband's lifetime ambition even while nearly bankrupted in the process. The fabulously urbane Elgin thrills his young wife from the first days of their union. But in spite of her successful wooing of influential men to aid in his Athena project (including the Sultan, his captain and the Sultana Valida), Elgin eventually displays the flaws of character which challenge his wife's devotion. Envy and consummate ambition destroy Mary's affection through years of travel, building the collection of "Elgin marbles" that will eventually be shipped to English soil. Through five difficult pregnancies, uncomfortable ocean voyages, Elgin's protracted bouts of a mysterious illness and his imprisonment by Napoleon, Mary becomes weary of her husband's never-ending demands and his rigid determination to have his way at all costs.

Unable to control her own destiny, Mary remains a forward-thinking woman, initially repulsed, then inspired by Lady Emma Hamilton of the notorious affair with Admiral Lord Nelson. Driven to distraction by Elgin's incessant demands, Mary pays a terrible price for her lack of independence, eventually a social pariah in spite of years of toil on behalf of Elgin's Athena project. Rich with historical detail, both in the 18th century and in the Golden Age of Athens, Essex posits the case for the women behind the renowned men of each era, the passionate and loyal support offered by those who fade into the pages of history while the men are remembered through the centuries. This is a vivid and poignant portrayal of Lady Elgin's, and to a lesser extent Aspasia's quest to merge both heart and destiny. Luan Gaines/ 2008.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting historical fiction., August 31, 2013
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Being Greek and wanting to see the Elgin Marbles returned to Athens, where they belong, I may be a bit biased in my review. I did enjoy this book and have recommended it to friends but it does get a bit slow at times. However, the author did her research and brought to life historical characters that are not well known today (sadly), so kudos for that. I really liked the way the book moved from one century to the other and character development was good. Without giving anything away, read this book if you're interested in how and why the Acropolis was built, what Greece was like under the Ottoman occupation and who Lord Elgin was and how he came about being one of the most despised men of the Greeks in regards to the Marbles. Spoiler alert: it wasn't just the Greeks that didn't like him!...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The intertwined lives of two women and the men they lived for, June 30, 2008
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Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
Once again, Karen Essex takes her readers back to a time in history rich in controversy with bold characters who cry out for attention. In STEALING ATHENA, she intertwines the lives of an ancient Greek and an 18th century British earl, two men with opposing interests.

Over 2,000 years ago, the famous Greek Pericles labored tirelessly to build the Parthenon, driven by his desire to erect a shrine to the powerful goddess Athena, namesake of his city. In doing so, he risked much: money, scorn, treachery. But to him, it was worth it. His lover, Aspasia, used her influence over the people of Athens to help him whenever possible. She could not deny her nature as a philosopher and a woman of strong opinions. Aspasia watched Pericles give himself over to this project, gently and subtly guiding him as much as she dared.

Once, seeing that Aspasia was perplexed by her lover's obsession with the Parthenon, a wise woman told her, "Think about it. For the sake of fame, men will risk great dangers...Pericles' sons and their sons, like all progeny, will die within a few generations. His building projects, however, are a more perfect bid for eternal fame than his children because they will last through the centuries..." Aspasia patted her pregnant belly and smiled at the truth of these words.

Over a thousand years later, as the 18th century turned into the 19th, the Scottish Lord Elgin had an obsession of his own: Save the Parthenon from looters and tourists by shipping it piece by piece back to England. But he needed help, a lot of it. He began by wooing the very desirable --- and very wealthy --- Mary Nisbet. Her heart was easily won. Following a short courtship, they were married, she was pregnant and, soon after, his bid to become British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire came through. The newlyweds felt their lives were charmed. Lord and Lady Elgin were on their way to Athens, where Elgin could begin his dream of deconstructing the Parthenon.

As her husband went about his work, Mary played the diplomat's wife with style and grace, making friends with some unlikely people. A headstrong female in a land where the rules that govern the behavior of women are restrictive in the extreme, she also caused tongues to wag. Elgin seemed proud of his wife, but his mood swings made Mary wonder at times. Nonetheless, she flourished as a hostess --- and as a mother.

Meanwhile, back when the Parthenon was in its infancy, Aspasia was building her own reputation as a hostess, since a man as influential as Pericles needed a strong presence in Athenian social circles. Some of her enemies, though, kept a jealous eye on her every move, keen for her to slip up. Society didn't afford courtesans much in the way of personal rights, nor did it wish to see them pretending to be on an equal tier with respectable ladies. There were people who wanted Aspasia brought down.

But if Pericles and Aspasia had troubles, they didn't compare to those of Lord and Lady Elgin. Could it be that the ancient gods were angered by the British earl and his quest to dismantle their shrine? Lord Elgin scoffed at the idea that anything mystical had a hand in it, but there is no denying that his fortunes took a precipitous downturn. Whether you're a believer or not, you must admit there is some force at work guiding every person's fate in this world.

These two women did not deserve the fates they were dealt. Strong, intelligent, with fierce fighting spirits, they lived in a world where men ruled, forced to find ways to make their lives tolerable and meaningful. Aspasia and Mary Nisbet Elgin, as Essex imagines them, embody all that's honorable, worthy and admirable, if not a little rebellious. They would be vastly uninteresting women if that were not so.

STEALING ATHENA firmly entrenches Karen Essex among the top historical novel writers of our day. Where will she go next? It most assuredly will involve a new slant on a woman with great passion from deep in the past.

--- Reviewed by Kate Ayers
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great historical novel, May 14, 2010
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Stealing Athena was hard to put down. Well written by Karen Essex with lots of historical facts regarding the treasures of Athens and how they were plundered. Liked the character, Lady Elgin, so much that I ordered and received Mistress of the Elgin Marbles.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Book Group Entertainment, February 13, 2011
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I read this book for a book group discussion. The first section of the book was a bit of a surprise (and I thought a disappointment) because it contained much discussion about the sex life of newlyweds Lord and Lady Elgin. My first reaction was, "Oh, no, this is nothing more than a glorified romance novel!" and "Who in my book group recommend this book?" Several other members of my group said they had the same reaction. Happily, the tone of the book changed, and it became an entertaining, informative read. We all were impressed at the historical research the author did, and felt that we learned a lot. We loved the changes from the Victorian period to ancient Greek times. All in all, it was a delightful novel!
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Stealing Athena
Stealing Athena by Karen Essex (Paperback - April 28, 2009)
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