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"Stealing Athena" by Karen Essex, Doubleday 2008

abstract:BookBuffet reviewer, Dee Raffo enjoys the historical fiction genre. Here is her July book review: "As I pick up Karen Essex’s fourth novel, Stealing Athena: A Novel (Doubleday 2008) I am struck by its beautiful cover. It is an 18th century self-portrait by French painter Marie-Genieve Bouliard, as she envisioned herself as the Greek courtesan and philosopher, Aspasia. The cover certainly does match the dual narratives of the book, where two characters 2300 years apart, one in ancient Greece, the other, 18th century Scotland, find themselves inexplicably linked with the Elgin Marbles, and the controversy and passion that surround them."


July 28, 2008
Born and raised in New Orleans, Karen Essex, is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist, who now resides in LA. After completing Tulane University and Grad school at Vanderbilt University she also gained an MFA in writing at Goddard College in Vermont. A lecturer herself, her works are used to teach courses in creative writing, history and women’s studies. Published in 25 different languages her profiles and essays have been printed in Vogue, Playboy, The LA Weekly, and LA Style. She is also in the midst of adapting two of her novels into screenplays for some exciting upcoming films.

Stealing Athena: A Novel is the fourth in a line of extremely successful novels that all follow Essex’s individual theme of illuminating a prominent female in history whose story has either been lost, forgotten or miss-told.

"I made it my goal to revive the stories of extraordinary women, highlighting the ways that they transformed the times in which they lived, and the world beyond."

Essex mentions that the inspiration for this book came from a visit to the Duveen Gallery which house the Elgin Marbles, then after more research she read Susan Nagels’s biography of Mary Nesbit and decided to highlight her contribution to the acquisition of the marbles.

"I thought, hmmmm, another woman who defied society’s idea of how a woman should behave and paid a steep price for it – and was forgotten."

Mary Nesbit sets the scene in 18th century Scotland, where at the age of 21 she is married to the Earl of Elgin who becomes the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. A truly loveable and feisty character, she is faced with an extraordinary journey across continents following her husbands quest to obtain the marbles and sculptures of the Greek Parthenon, at any cost. The other side of the story is set in Ancient Greece where Aspasia, a young girl from Miletus, is given to Pericles, a great Athenian Statesman who builds the Parthenon to represent Athens greatness over the rest of Greece and the world. Essex seems at home with these ancient times, she has in fact studied Ancient Greece and that is why the story is so packed with intricate detail that gives the reader a great perspective from where they can let their imagination do the rest. Essex carefully intertwines the hunt for the marbles with the more delicate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child, daughter and parents. This is what makes the story so much more intimate and enthralling, these humanistic details give a fuller picture of what a venture of that size really demanded of the people that were thrown in its path. A self confessed ‘research freak’ you get a real sense that the author has covered this story from all angels.

"I literally like to share molecules with my characters" … "I am fortunate to be able to spend time with so many of history’s most fascinating people, I mean I feel as if I’ve dated Julius Caesar… "

There is certainly a circular feel to this book with one character witnessing the construction of the Parthenon and the other watching its fall. Essex cleverly suggests the themes of possession and ownership all the way through the book with how Mary and Aspasia’s lives are linked to these beautiful marbles that are coverted and owned by men.

"…[T]he married female has no legal existence acknowledged by the courts. If a woman is married, her husband must execute any legal or business transactions on her behalf."

Told from the female perspective we witness the frustrating constrictions of those two societies, hundreds of years apart, the characters come across the same restrictive barriers and refuse to be hindered by them. These are women who gave up everything for the men they loved but did not receive the security, benefits or respect they deserved.

"The only reason I was set free was not because I was in the right, or because I demonstrated skill in my own defence, or even because I was innocent, but because two male Athenian citizens had vouched for my virtue. It was a victory, but one that did not leave me feeling completely victorious."

Karen Essex addresses the subject of women and power and this story really delves into the lives of two women who defy the society of the time and are determined to own themselves and gain self worth. One of Essex’s previous books, ‘Kleopatra’, echoes a similar sentiment and points out that these women gain notoriety, which often leads to criticism and persecution, but on the other hand they gain respect from other illustrious figures, for example Mary manages to charm some of the most important rulers of that time which in effect led to the successful removal of the marbles.

"Still, Mary was not to be deterred. She had already exceeded the boundaries of her gender, and rather than reprisal, the Captain pasha had met her daring with admiration."

There is a sense of justice in this book, that Essex is paying homage to the women behind the scenes, in a wider sense it does bring the question of how women portrayed in history and it leaves me wondering how many stories we have missed by over-looking the accomplishments of these female rule breakers.

"Though we are living in more tolerant times, I think that women of all ages will strongly identify with these brave and progressive heroines."

This book is beautifully written, bringing together two completely different historical eras and fusing them together using the parallel lives of two ingenious women. Just the right mix of historical detail and story telling flare, it is also interesting that the subject of the marbles is still one heavily debated and current. This book had me captured from beginning to end. Stealing Athena: A Novel

Links and Videos

Watch this short video with the author reading from her novel.

For more info, visit the author's website.

Here is a transcript of an Interview with Karen by

Other Novels By Essex
Leonardo's Swans: A Novel (Broadway, 2007)
Pharaoh (Kleopatra, Volume II) published by Grand Central Publishing in 2002.



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