Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guest Review: Stealing Athena

I admit it! I'm completely and utterly overwhelmed with books! In the past few weeks, I have been swamped with wonderful books from authors and publishers. Like Lisa at Books on the Brain, I recognized that I needed some help; so I asked my good friend Melissa if she would be willing to read STEALING ATHENA and write a review. Thank goodness, she agreed!

Melissa is a relatively recent addition to my book club, and I'm so glad that we became friends. She is an avid reader -- usually she can read a couple of books a week; and she is always giving me wonderful book suggestions (we tend to have similar taste in books.) After being a career girl for many years, Melissa is now a stay-at-home mom with an eight year old daughter. She has been married to her husband Mike for almost 14 years.

Summary: The Elgin Marbles have been displayed in the British Museum for nearly two hundred years, and for just as long they have been the center of a raging controversy. In Stealing Athena, Karen Essex chronicles the Marbles’ amazing journey through the dynamic narratives of Mary Nisbet, wife of the Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople, and Aspasia, the mistress of Perikles, the most powerful man in Athens during that city’s Golden Age.

At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the twenty-one-year-old, newly wed Countess of Elgin, a Scottish heiress and celebrated beauty, enchanted the power brokers of the Ottoman Empire, using her charms to obtain their permission for her husband’s audacious plan to deconstruct the Parthenon and bring its magnificent sculptures to England. Two millennia earlier, Aspasia, a female philosopher and courtesan, and a central figure in Athenian life, plied her wits, allure, and influence with equal determination, standing with Perikles at the center of vehement opposition to his vision of building the most exquisite monuments the world had ever seen.

Rich in romance and intrigue, greed and glory, Stealing Athena is an enthralling work of historical fiction and a masterful weaving together of the intimate lives of two of history’s most influential and fascinating women. – Book Jacket

As a big fan of historical fiction, I absolutely loved STEALING ATHENA by Karen Essex. With that being said, I have to admit that I really didn’t know much about the history of the Elgin Marbles. Nor did I realize when I began reading the book, that the author’s narrative was based largely on fact, especially with regard to the story of Lord Elgin and his wife, Mary. When Lord Elgin was appointed Ambassador to Constantinople, he petitioned the British government for moneys to fund an expedition of Greece’s historical sites to make moulds and casts of its spectacular architectural ruins. After he is denied this request from his government, he marries his young bride because of her large fortune and her ability to fund his plans.

For me, Lord Elgin was a very unlikable character. I thought he was self-centered, shallow and devious, especially when it came to convincing his wife to give him money or asking her father for it. At the same time, his wife, Mary Nesbit, comes across as very spoiled, judgmental and somewhat shallow as well, especially in the beginning. Toward the end of the book, I found myself to be much more sympathetic toward her.

It is largely because of Mary’s efforts and charm that Lord Elgin is given permission by the reigning Sultan to enter the Acropolis and remove almost half of the surviving sculptures at the Parthenon to take back to Great Britain; and it is Mary’s family money that makes this all possible. It is also Mary who successfully arranges (and pays) for the artifacts to be shipped to England, which was no small endeavor.

Elgin and Mary’s story does not end happily. He publicly divorces her on the accusation of adultery and wins custody of all four of their children. He is, however, thwarted in his attempt to seize control of her inheritance in a turn of events which I thoroughly enjoyed. In the end, the English government buys the Marbles from Elgin at a fraction of their worth, when he is forced to sell them to help pay his mounting debt and creditors.

The author does an expert job weaving into her narrative, the story of Pericles, who was responsible for the construction of the Parthenon, and his mistress, Aspasia. Living almost 2,000 years apart, both Aspasia and Mary Elgin, are strong-willed women constrained by the times they lived in. Both Lord Elgin and Pericles are men striving for a legacy that will grant them immortality. Essex switches back and forth between their parallel stories seamlessly. She does a fabulous job painting a vivid picture of the political climate of Athens during the time the Parthenon was built, and the difficulties and opposition that Pericles faced and had to overcome to create one of the most magnificent monuments of ancient times.

During the time that Lord Algin was Ambassador, the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, which is how the Elgins were granted permission from the Sultan to enter and excavate the Parthenon. Technically, they had permission to do what they did, but I have to admit that I was horrified that this actually happened. I think that the removal of the marbles was no less than a desecration. The book is aptly titled, STEALING ATHENA, for the irrevocable theft of art, history and culture that belonged to another people and country. In his defense, Elgin believed that he was preserving history, arguing that the sculptures would be better cared for and maintained in Great Britain. Upon finishing the book, I did some research on the background of the Elgin Marbles, which I found fascinating. The Marbles currently reside in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum, and there is much controversy over whether or not they should be returned to Greece. I, of course, think they should.

I would recommend this book to anyone, especially to those who enjoy historical fiction. Even though it is filled with historical detail, it reads very smoothly with a nice, easy tempo. I enjoyed STEALING ATHENA so much, that I look forward to reading some of Essex’s other books this summer.

Thanks Melissa! I had a feeling that STEALING ATHENA would be a good book. I read another one of Ms. Essex's books, LEONARDO'S SWANS, last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Based on Melissa's review, I think STEALING ATHENA sounds like a wonderful book club pick. There are discussion questions available here if you are interested.


Cheryl said...

Good review

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Melissa! I love historical fiction and this sounds like a winner.

LisaMM said...

Wow, great review! Julie, isn't it great to have a willing reviewer on hand?!?!

Amy said...

This was a good one to pass on b/c it's so chunky!

Melissa's a great reviewer, maybe you could rename the site, Booking Mamas?

I really need to learn how to say no. I had ten books for review this week, and there was just no way. I think only one of them is getting a proper review. That's one of the good things about working with publicity groups...if you can't review it, you can just post the blurb! :)

Plus, I just finished a book I loved and am having a hard time getting into something new. :(

Anonymous said...

If you loved Stealing Athena and would like to read more novels set in that time period, you can find a list of them on the "Napoleonic" page of my Historical Novels website at Stealing Athena is just one of over 3000 novels listed on the website. Have fun!