Wherever you stand in the argument about purloining art in order to preserve it, this evenhanded novel probably won't help define your position. Still, you will have had a particularly good adventure spanning two notable eras in the world's cultural history: one, circa 400 BCE, when the standards for the next 2,300 years of art were being set in marble, and the other, the early 19th century, a time when those works faced either obliteration or forcible relocation to a foreign land.

Stealing Athena, by Karen Essex, best-selling author of Leonardo's Swans, represents a grade of fiction several waves above your typical beach book. There's sex, to be sure, but far more interesting are the lives of the two women whose stories alternate in this novel. Mary Nesbit was the wife of Lord Elgin, whose name will always be associated with the magnificent friezes, statues and other artifacts he begged, borrowed and bought, at the expense of his own reputation and his wife's happiness. Aspasia, mistress of Pericles of Athens, knew the sculptor Phidias, Socrates and other standouts, while, like Mary, facing the complicated, sometimes dangerous, problems of self-definition in times that were monumentally hard on women.

As always, the Greek marbles that Lord Elgin removed from the Acropolis (and other places) tend to steal the show. Time has not calmed the argument over their final resting place, which indeed has intensified as a new museum prepares to open in Athens next year. Still, this fictional treatment, both exotic and down to earth, supplies an entertaining research engine into the whole issue and its background. Stealing Athena is one beach read that the sands of time will only enhance.

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