Stealing Athena
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 22, 2008
For the first chapter or so, Stealing Athena threatens to be a bodice ripper. But hang in there and it quickly becomes a very compelling tale of the beautiful and wealthy Mary Nisbet, who marries Lord Elgin and follows him to Constantinople, where he is to be ambassador for several years. Lord Elgin is also using his rich young wife and her parents to fund his project to excavate Greek antiquities and works of art from the Parthenon either in order to save them, or in order to secure his own place in history, or possibly both. In Karen Essex' capable hands Lord Elgin's intentions are wonderfully ambiguous until the very end of the novel. Until then, the early 19th century comes alive in all of its wonderful detail -- the politics, the social scandals, the food, the fashion, interior design, social norms and the proper role of women, family law rights, etc., in several different locales: London, Scotland, Constantinople, Athens, and Paris, in particular. Essex has also done the same for ancient Athens in the time of Perikles, through the voice of Aspasia, Perikles' courtesan who is his wife in all but name.

The two tales are interspersed, although a great deal more time is spent on the Elgins than on Perikles and Aspasia, and there is very little to tie the two stories together other than the fact that Lady Elgin reads Aspasia's name in a history of Perikles. Both Lady Elgin and Aspasia are women who work on their husband's behalf and achieve infamy and scandal as a result. Although the similarities between the two women are made apparent, there really isn't anything to tie them together other than that Aspasia was there when the Parthenon was going up, and Lady Elgin is there when her husband takes it down. It's one of the few weak points in the book that the two stories are not more and better tied together, especially since both time periods have been magnificently researched and both come alive with vibrant writing. This book falls just shy of a full five star rating for its somewhat modern, feminist tone toward the end, which is hammered home rather hard when it really doesn't need to be - the facts speak for themselves quite well. But the book achieves its goal of making the world of these two women come alive in all respects and making you care about the two of them greatly. Details of the artworks themselves are copious, but not overwhelming and never boring. The Turks and the Parisians get plenty of attention, as do the medical ills of the day and the rights women had (or more often didn't have) in both Britain and Turkey. This is one of the better historical novels I've read in quite some time. It makes you want to know more about the period and to go take another look at those Elgin/Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. And it makes you care about what happens to its protagonists. A very satisfying read.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 23, 2008
If you have been to the British Museum in London you could not have missed the Elgin Marbles, those lovely white carvings taken from the Parthenon in Athens. What you might not have done is imagined the arduous task it was to move them there. In this historical novel Karen Essex has painted the picture for us of the personal lives of the people involved.

In 1799 Lord Elgin was appointed ambassador to Constantinople. He was a newlywed and took his wife, Mary, with him to his post. He was glad to have been given the position because he was an architecture buff and believed that what the Ancient Greeks built was the pinnacle of architectural perfection. At the time, Athens was occupied by the Ottoman Turks. They were camped at the Acropolis and were smashing the marbles to use for building materials, using the core metal to make ammunition. He wanted to make moldings and have drawings done so that those historical buildings would not be lost forever.

Mary was only twenty one and pregnant at the start of this odyssey. But she was a lovely, smart and charming young woman. She won the admiration of the Sultan and other high ranking Turks. The Turks put no value on the ancient buildings in Greece and, as a favor to Mary, ended up allowing the Elgins to remove whatever ancient item they desired from the country.

Removal of the priceless ancient sculptures became an obsession for Lord Elgin. He spent an enormous amount of money extracting the artifacts, becoming deep in debt, causing transportation nightmares, ruining his health and his marriage. All the while competing with Napoleon and the French for artifacts in between the Napoleonic Wars.

While we see the destruction of the Parthenon through Mary's eyes, the author also gives us a glimpse of it's construction through the eyes of Aspasia. She was the mistress of the man behind the building of the Parthenon, Perikles, and a philosopher in her own right. Through her the reader is given a window into the society of ancient Athens and their political structure, which shows us the roots of our own.

Since that time the debate has raged: where do the marbles belong? The Greeks would like them back and have even built a new museum to house them when they return. The British Museum shows no sign of letting them go. It is questionable whether the marbles would even still exist now if they had not been removed when they were.

This is a great historical novel with it's basis in fact. The author did extensive historical research and it shows in the story line. It is a fascinating story of two strong women who had the courage to take control of their own lives.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2008
I am am avid reader of historical fiction, and am surprised I missed this one somehow until now. Essex's novel focuses on the famous Elgin marbles, and is told in both first person and third. At first, I found this jarring, but after getting used to it, I settled in and very much enjoyed the story of Mary Elgin, whose husband is obsessed with preserving the Elgin marbles.

However, my favorite part of the novel is when Aspasia begins narrating the book and we rediscover what Athens was thousands of years ago. Aspasia is a courtesan loved by Perikles, and though she experiences freedoms few other women in the city have - to go where she pleases, to discuss politics, and to talk with men freely - her profession also puts her in danger.

A novel of both the Elgin marbles and the building of the Parthenon, this book with a rare find and a true jewel. Although my specialty is Egyptology, I do know a great deal about the rest of the ancient world, which made me appreciate this book even more, since it's clear the author did her homework.
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on February 12, 2011
Although we bought this book because of a book club that we belong to we found it very, very interesting. The discussion on the book was different and involved characters, etc. The history was very meaningful and well written.
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on May 3, 2013
I read the novel on the way to Athens, Greece. It made the visit much more meaningful. I enjoyed the story.
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on March 12, 2013
Just did not get into the characters. I skipped a lot because I did not care so much for the dialog.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 7, 2008
Lady Mary Elgin, recently married, is swept along by her husband on his quest to claim priceless Greek art from the Ottoman Empire for the British, under the guise of Ambassador, while relying on her fortune to pay the bills. Centuries before, Aspasia is neatly given by her brother-in-law to Greece's ruler, Perikles. In Stealing Athena, the stories of these two oddly similar women intertwine to form one powerful narrative about women's struggles in the face of never-ending male oppression, while the great marble statues of Greece are both built and taken apart.

This is how historical fiction narratives should be combined. Both stories are compelling and each time they switched, I regretted the change, only to be happy that the other woman was now featured. I did prefer Mary, in all honesty, but I agree with other reviewers because it seems that the book is more hers than Aspasia's. She gets a bit more time and it's easy to feel frustration and sympathy for her. It is also for Aspasia, but Mary's dilemmas are more numerous and almost more modern day. The stories complemented each other beautifully. In Aspasia's tale, the Parthenon is being raised, as well as many other great temples. In Mary's, they are being torn down, supposedly to save them.

In fact, therein lies my biggest problem with the book. It's a difficult tale to hear. I have issues with British pillaging of ancient treasures, despite the fact that I have only been able to enjoy them in England because of this. It's hard, as someone who loves history so much, to hear about how these priceless and completely irreplaceable marbles were carelessly handled and damaged by the British. Yes, it would have been horrible if they had been destroyed, but they could have been handled better, and treated better later at the British Museum. (No offense to the British of today, obviously, they're trying to make up for it.)

The book is well written, and each woman has her own distinctive voice. At times, they echo each other, and they show the universality of female existence; largely, that women have historically had few rights and been totally subservient to men. Each woman thwarts this in her own way, and it shows us that their condition did not actually improve. Stealing Athena is also extremely well-plotted and never drags or gets boring. I never wished for the other woman's chapter to start. With some expansion, either story could have functioned perfectly well on its own. Instead, they fit together and the book benefits from their shared experiences and the complete circle of the story, from construction to destruction.

I'd highly recommend this book, especially to historical fiction readers, but I think I'd recommend it to others as well.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
When Mary Nisbit, a beautiful and vivacious young woman, marries the handsome Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to Constantinople, their future together looks bright. Soon they begin a journey traversing the globe that will culminate in Athens, where Elgin has plans to excavate and transport the ruins of the Parthenon to England. Although Elgin is ostensibly in Constantinople to smooth foreign relations between Britain and the Ottoman Empire, his passion lies with the exportation of the ancient Grecian ruins of the temple of Athena. Throughout their travels, Mary flourishes in the exotic locales and befriends many important and influential people, but she longs for the comforts of home, and struggles through many difficult pregnancies and political upheavals. As the years pass, Elgin becomes more and more insistent in removing and shipping vast quantities of the relics, to the severe detriment of his wife's fortune and the stability of their marriage. Meanwhile, separated by thousands of years, the story of Aspasia is told. Aspasia is the philosopher and lover of Pericles, the statesman who is responsible for the construction of the Parthenon. As Aspasia's story unfolds, we are privy to her ordeals and victories, as well as receiving an enlightening picture of ancient Greece, from the segregation and subjugation of it's women, to the intricacies of it's religious ideology. Through the weaving of these two tales, we get to know these two extraordinary women and chronicle the beginning and ending of this great monument, from it's design and construction to it's deterioration and removal from it's homeland.

As a historical novel, this book really excels. The level of research that went into the book made the story very full and engaging without making it dry and flavorless, and the execution of the story was quite adept. Mary and Elgin's story was the main focus of the book, and I would say that Mary's chapters outweighed Aspasia's about six to one. Mary was a very likable heroine, who was skilfully portrayed as a woman that was easy to relate to, and embodied many of the emotions that a woman of today's time might feel. She was a very credible character who sacrificed much for the love of her husband and children, while still being independent and knowledgeable. I felt more connected to her character than any other in the book, and admired her efficient diplomacy and kindness. It almost seemed that Mary was the foreign ambassador, maintaining the goodwill between the two nations all on her own, while Elgin traipsed around collecting artifacts. I especially enjoyed the sections devoted to Mary's meetings with the Captain Pasha of the Ottoman empire. Their unlikely friendship made Mary's stay in Constantinople much more bearable. His generosity and goodwill seemed to know no bounds, and it was monumental that he allowed Mary to visit the inner sanctum of the Harem and to meet the Sultan's mother, the Valida. Although the sections on the life of Aspasia were interesting and involving, I believe the limited exposure to her character made her less a focal point to the reader. This is not to say that her story was less compelling, only less detailed. One particularly interesting aspect of Aspasia's story were the details regarding Pheidias, lead artist of many of the great sculptures and friezes.

Elgin, however, was a completely disgusting fellow. He was very manipulative and not shrewd with his spending habits at all. Many times throughout the book, he displayed a shocking amount of arrogance and sense of entitlement to the relics that he wished to possess. From the outset, I found Elgin to be almost insufferable and egotistical. There were times when he seemed proud of the work Mary was doing on behalf of the embassy, but even then his wheedling for more money overshadowed the more pleasant aspects of his character. There seemed to be no bounds to his collecting, regardless of the cost or hardship that he created for everyone else. He was single minded in his pursuits, not taking Mary's feelings into consideration, and constantly placing her in undesirable situations. As he was based on a real person, I can only say that I would not like to have met Elgin in reality. The author's ability to capture Elgin's flaws was incredible; he was a fully realized unpleasant man. Many will argue the merits of Elgin's cause, perhaps stating that the artifacts are better off having been deconstructed and preserved rather that destroyed in their natural setting, and though I somewhat agree with that sentiment, it way the way that the collecting was undertaken that was particularly irksome. There is no way to tell if the artifacts would have been lost had this pillaging not taken place. One of the more heinous opinions that Elgin expressed was the sentiment that the people of Greece were heathens who didn't deserve to keep their temple. The grandiosity of his thinking and his subsequent actions towards the end of the book made me realize that I had not judged Elgin too harshly at all.

Before reading this book, I had not been exposed to any information regarding the Elgin Marbles or the controversy that still swirls about them today. This insight to the history of some of the most important pieces of artwork in history was both unsettling and revealing. It was a testament to the author's capability that I was able to see and understand the historical importance of these valuable relics, while still being appalled at the ravaging of the stones from their origins. The story was extremely involving and intricate, with characters that were well fleshed out and believable. This story inspired many emotions in me, from disgust and incredulity, to admiration and wonderment. Never was the plot dragging or soft. I would recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction as well as those who just want a good character driven story.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2008
Stealing Athena by Karen Essex is a well-researched and well-written fictionalized account of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin. It starts in 1799 with the story of her marriage to Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who brought back to England what are called The Elgin Marbles - friezes, metopes, and statues from the Parthenon and Acropolis. It ends in 1816, when she visits the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.

Mary loves Elgin when she marries him but is disillusioned by his spending of her fortune, his jealousy of other men which she feels is unfounded and 5 pregnancies in the first 7 years of their marriage that sap her strength and put her through more pain than she is ultimately willing to bear. Elgin divorces her for adultery, an almost unheard of action in the early 1800s; taking her children and turning her into an outcast. She eventually marries Robert Ferguson, the man sued by Elgin for seducing her.

It is also the story of Aspasia, concubine to Pericles, prominent Athenian statesman and military leader in Greece's Golden Age. Pericles sponsored Pheidias in his work on the Parthenon and the Acropolis, especially in the sculpting of the great statue of Athena Promachos.

In Aspasia's portions of the book we learn of her love for Pericles and the irony of his establishing a law that no Athenian can marry an alien. This law prevents him from marrying her. Her story is filled with references to Pheidias and his work on the Athena and the friezes of the Parthenon. Aspasia is put on trial for corrupting the women of Athens to satisfy the perversions of Pericles and posing for Pheidias and allowing him to use her face for the face of Athena, considered a sacrilege. Pheidias is put on trial for embezzling gold from the Athena statue and impiety for putting images of himself and Pericles on Athena's shield.

The book alternates their stories. The historical references are beautifully integrated into the stories. The language is appropriate to the time periods, the actions and motivations of both women make sense according to their world views, and I appreciated their strength of character. I cared for Mary and Aspasia. Both women tried to carve a place for themselves in a man's world. Mary's trial for divorce, although a very small part of her story, and Aspasia's for corruption and impiety, a much larger part of her story, are detailed and vivid.

I really enjoyed this book. It flowed nicely and was very interesting. I appreciated the descriptions of Constantinople, Athens, Scotland, and England and how the greater context of the Napoleonic Wars and the Golden Age of Greece were so much a part of the stories of these women.

The Fates of the Characters and Author's Notes at the end of the book are a welcome addition to the book and make me want to research both these women and the men in their lives.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2008
This is one of the best historical novels I've ever read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone. It was beautifully written and very informational. I still have a hard time believing how horrible women used to be treated, it just makes me sick. I hope her other novels are as good.
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