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A lively exposé of double standards in two societies that prided themselves on democratic ideals and respect for women.

In her fourth historical novel, Essex (Leonardo’s Swans, 2006, etc.) alternates the stories of two influential women, a Greek courtesan and a Scottish heiress, who each played a crucial role in the history of artifacts from Athens’s Golden Age.

In 1799, wealthy Mary Nisbet and her new husband, the dashing but penniless earl of Elgin, journey to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire. Posted there as British ambassador, Elgin has an all-consuming ambition to secure the priceless marble sculptures adorning the Acropolis in Ottoman-ruled Athens before they are dismantled to make bricks or pulverized to extract lead for Turkish bullets. Strapped from keeping Napoleon at bay, the British government won’t finance Elgin’s ambassadorial or archeological endeavors, so the fiscal burden falls on Mary. A parallel tale set during the 30-year truce that preceded the Peloponnesian War follows Aspasia, the philosopher-courtesan beloved of Athens’s de facto dictator, Pericles, and an outspoken critic of the oppression of women in a city-state supposedly founded by the goddess Athena. Ponderous sections devoted to the logistics of creating and removing the marbles slow down what is otherwise a briskly entertaining narrative. Educated and spirited, Mary is an exemplary wife who endangers her delicate health with multiple pregnancies, underwrites Elgin’s profligate spending and charms the Turks into sanctioning his looting of the Parthenon and other Greek monuments. Aspasia reluctantly permits Pheidias, sculptor of the marbles, to model his colossus of Athena after her. No good deed goes unpunished, Mary and Aspasia learn, for women who forget their place. After Mary is finally estranged by Elgin’s selfishness and financial demands, English law allows him to trash her reputation in divorce court and take her children. Aspasia is publicly tried on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and licentiousness. Both triumph—though Mary pays a heavy price—thanks to their own grit as well as the help of powerful male defenders.

A lively exposé of double standards in two societies that prided themselves on democratic ideals and respect for women.

Pub Date: June 17, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-385-51971-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008

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The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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