Friday, August 1, 2008

Stealing Athena - Karen Essex

I was immediately captured by the beautiful cover art of Stealing Athena by Karen Essex, released by Random House.

This story is told from the viewpoints of two women in two different periods of history whose lives are touched by the same priceless art.

Lady Mary Elgin is a young, wealthy, pregnant twenty one year old who accompanies her husband on his mission as England's ambassador to Turkey in 1799. Lord Elgin has a burning desire to literally bring the beauty of Greek sculpture and architecture back to Britain. He sets his sights on the city of Athens, the Parthenon and the many sculptures dedicated to the goddess Athena. Mary is vibrant and outgoing. She uses her beguiling ways (and her money) to benefit and further her husband's cause.

Aspasia is living in Athens at the height of the Golden Age - the time of the building of the Parthenon and many monuments and temples by Pheidias. She is the courtesan of Pericles -one of the leaders of the city of Athens. She is also a philosopher and although never fully accepted by the Athenians, she provides counsel to many of them.

I don't usually read this time period, but I found myself entranced with the exquisite detail that Essex has infused her work with. I then skipped to the back of the book and discovered that Lady Elgin is not a fictional character and the deconstruction of the Parthenon by her husband really took place. Much of Mary's fictionalized life is based upon her actual journals.

More chapters are devoted to Mary's life and this is the character I enjoyed the most. Her determination, will and drive are inspiring - even more so considering the time period she lived in . Although I enjoyed Aspasia's chapters as well, I found myself glossing over some of the detailed descriptions.

There are many parallels between Aspasia and Mary's lives - the role of women in a male dominated society being one of the foremost. However the extraordinary way both use their strong personalities to deal with these constraints are similar as well. The men in the stories are portrayed well also. I really ended up despising Lord Elgin and his cavalier treatment of not just Mary but the Greek countrymen who did not want their heritage removed.

Stealing Athena features a fascinating fictionalization of historical events. Fans of Emma Donoghue would enjoy Stealing Athena.

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