Monday, July 28, 2008

Stealing Athena by Karen Essex - 452 pgs

Book CoverWhen 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 ass. 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.


Anonymous said...

Elgin sounds like more of a bastard than Henry!

Lana said...

A truly excellent review. I've added Stealing Athena to my TBR mountain. I've been interested in the Elgin Marble controversy for a while, but my classmates and most professors seem to take Elgin's side simply because they prefer vilifying Lord Byron (who was vocal in his outcries against Elgin). I like Byron, and I think Elgin was a jerk, so this seems right up my alley. :-)

Zibilee said...

lana- Thanks!

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