Monday, February 06, 2017

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, a novel of art and family set in fin-de-siècle and WWII Vienna

For those who moved in high society in fin-de-siècle Vienna, the city sat at the pinnacle of elegance and culture. Provocative political ideas were discussed in private salons and coffeehouses along the Ringstrasse, while painter Gustav Klimt and designers like the Flöge sisters pushed boundaries in art and design.

By four decades later, the Viennese atmosphere was far darker. Amid a rising tide of anti-Semitism, Jews were beaten in the streets, forced out of their homes, and had their property seized by the Nazis, who took care to ensure their heinous methods of theft appeared unimpeachably legal.

In her engrossing tale of art, family, loss, and female empowerment, Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty presents a shifting view of this famous European city. The characters are historical, and the novel also describes a real-life account of long-awaited justice – one that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the 2015 film Woman in Gold.

I borrowed the DVD of the latter after finishing the book, and they’re quite different, since they focus on different aspects of the history (the past vs. the present). Also, as much as I enjoyed the movie, Helen Mirren’s acting in particular, the book tells a deeper, more fulfilling story.

Alternating as narrators are Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was depicted in multiple works by Gustav Klimt, and her niece Maria Altmann. Their separate stories are fleshed out so well that each could be complete in itself, but the intertwining makes the themes resonate more strongly. Their situations and circumstances strike a marked contrast, but the women are equally brave and determined. Rather than pointing this out in obvious fashion, the author lets readers see this for themselves.

Both women are the youngest daughters in different generations of the same prominent Jewish family. Although neither is religious, this doesn’t matter as far as how society envisions them. While Adele can’t achieve her dream of attending university due to her gender, she makes connections and a name for herself in the avant-garde art world and nourishes her intellect in other ways. Similarly, Maria goes after what she wants, including the husband of her choosing. After being forced to flee the city of her birth for her own survival, Maria, years later, fights to regain the Klimt paintings that the Nazis stole from her family.

Naturally, both women’s stories are intricately intertwined with that of Klimt’s artistic renderings of Adele. Albanese details the circumstances behind their creation, as well as the paintings’ afterlives. Adele’s relationship with Klimt is vividly imagined as an intimate affair that proves beneficial to both; for her, it’s part of her ongoing journey of self-discovery.

Like the gilded image of Adele on canvas, the novel is painted with abundant detail and, in the earlier sections in particular, descriptions that sparkle. For Adele, visiting Vienna’s elegant Central Café with her fiancé for the first time, “the gold-embossed wallpaper made the room glow like a treasure box,” while her new friend Berta Zuckerkandl describes the conversations between writers there: “Sometimes they read aloud to one another, and bits of poetry land on my table like beautiful birds.”

Per the afterword, Stolen Beauty took the author years to research. Read it for insight not only into art and European history, but also the private lives and motivations of two women who stood up for what they believed in.

Stolen Beauty will be published tomorrow in hardcover and ebook by Atria ($26 / $12.99, 320pp). Thanks to the publisher for providing me access via Edelweiss.

This post forms part of the novel's blog tour.  As part of the tour, the publisher is offering the opportunity to win one of three signed copies of Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese.  The contest is open until February 14th.  To enter, visit the contest site at Rafflecopter.


  1. Great review, Sarah! I was in Vienna for a week in 2012 (Klimt's 150th b'day) bingeing on Klimt exhibits — including a lengthy correspondence between the artist and Emilie Floge that went on for decades. But the painting of Adele, "The Woman in Gold," now lives at the Neue Gallery in NYC, and fans of this story should rush out immediately and go see it in person!

    1. Thanks, Lisa! I would love to see Adele's portrait in person. I'll be heading to NYC in the spring and will have to make a point of going there. And hopefully one day I'll make it to Vienna as well!

  2. Sounds great - the pursuit and recovery of some of the Klimt art make for a fascinating story.

    1. I have a vague memory of reading about the legal case back when it happened, but I didn't know all the details. It is a great story.