Lady Mary Elgin, recently married, is swept along by her husband on his quest to claim priceless Greek art from the Ottoman Empire for the British, under the guise of Ambassador, while relying on her fortune to pay the bills. Centuries before, Aspasia is neatly given by her brother-in-law to Greece’s ruler, Perikles. In Stealing Athena, the stories of these two oddly similar women intertwine to form one powerful narrative about women’s struggles in the face of never-ending male oppression, while the great marble statues of Greece are both built and taken apart.
This is how historical fiction narratives should be combined. Both stories are compelling and each time they switched, I regretted the change, only to be happy that the other woman was now featured. I did prefer Mary, in all honesty, but I agree with other reviewers because it seems that the book is more hers than Aspasia’s. She gets a bit more time and it’s easy to feel frustration and sympathy for her. It is also for Aspasia, but Mary’s dilemmas are more numerous and almost more modern day. The stories complemented each other beautifully. In Aspasia’s tale, the Parthenon is being raised, as well as many other great temples. In Mary’s, they are being torn down, supposedly to save them.
In fact, therein lies my biggest problem with the book. It’s a difficult tale to hear. I have issues with British pillaging of ancient treasures, despite the fact that I have only been able to enjoy them in England because of this. It’s hard, as someone who loves history so much, to hear about how these priceless and completely irreplaceable marbles were carelessly handled and damaged by the British. Yes, it would have been horrible if they had been destroyed, but they could have been handled better, and treated better later at the British Museum. (No offense to the British of today, obviously, they’re trying to make up for it.)
The book is well written, and each woman has her own distinctive voice. At times, they echo each other, and they show the universality of female existence; largely, that women have historically had few rights and been totally subservient to men. Each woman thwarts this in her own way, and it shows us that their condition did not actually improve. Stealing Athena is also extremely well-plotted and never drags or gets boring. I never wished for the other woman’s chapter to start. With some expansion, either story could have functioned perfectly well on its own. Instead, they fit together and the book benefits from their shared experiences and the complete circle of the story, from construction to destruction.
I’d highly recommend this book, especially to historical fiction readers, but I think I’d recommend it to others as well. Buy this book on Amazon. I’m now on the lookout for non-fiction about Lady Mary Elgin, so recommend away if you’ve read any! I’ve heard of one book by Susan Nagel, but I’m not sure if there are others.