Stealing Athena by Karen Essex
What do an early 19th century British ambassador’s wife and a 5th century B.C. Athenian courtesan have in common? That is, essentially, the connection explored by Karen Essex in her latest book, “Stealing Athena.”
Wealthy Lady Mary Elgin is following her new husband to Constantinople to the court of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He hopes that this post will win him glory, but more than that he wants to gain permission to journey to Greece and ‘rescue’ the statues of the Parthenon, now called the Elgin Marbles. Lord Elgin‘s lust for these ancient pieces drives a wedge between him and his wife, partially because of the financial ruin it brings him.
Told in parallel to Mary’s story is that of Aspasia, courtesan to the Athenian statesman Pericles. Aspasia is sharing her life at the time that Phidias is overseeing work on the marbles of the Parthenon. She is trying to navigate her precarious life in Athens as both a foreigner and a woman and becomes embroiled in the scandal surrounding Phidias and Pericles’ work on the Parthenon.
Karen Essex is a master of historical fiction. She describes places and time periods so evocatively that one might think that they were there. In addition, her stories are clearly meticulously researched – I have previously read and enjoyed her novel “Leonardo’s Swans.”
That being said, I think “Stealing Athena” dragged a bit in the middle. It probably could have been 50 to 100 pages shorter. Part of my problem was that, at that time, I was not really seeing how Mary Elgin and Aspasia’s stories fit together in a cohesive way. Eventually I became interested in the parallel struggles they faced as women, over 2,000 years apart. In addition, I think Mary’s story in relation to the marbles would have been very poor indeed without the background on their place in Athenian society and their creation for the Parthenon; Aspasia told the story of the marbles in a very interesting manner.
Yes, the two story lines could have been better connected earlier, the book could have been a bit shorter, and/or there could have been a bit more of Aspasia and a bit less of Mary and Lord Elgin. However, as far as I know, this was Essex’s first attempt at dual time period historical fiction and with that consideration she did quite well. In addition, the marbles really do have a fascinating story and Essex writes so well that I think this book is worth a read for fans of historical fiction, particularly those interested in the Ottoman Empire and Constantinople, ancient Athens, and Britain during the reign of Napoleon.