Stolen Beauty

Atria Books  2016


Readers interested in the twentieth-century art world and the Second World War might have already discovered recent books and films about artworks, heirlooms, and libraries stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis and the incredibly difficult road to restitution over the next half-century. So what makes Lauri Lico Albanese’s novel Stolen Beatury so incredibly delicious to read, and how does it uniquely deliver intelligent plot, literary substance and, emotional impact?

Stolen Beauty flips back and forth between the glamorous wealthy world of early twentieth-century Vienna and the rapidly darkening years of the 1930s of Nazi-occupied Austria. Albanese’s dazzling descriptions depict each moment’s contemporary arts movements and real-life artists of the time, following these characters into the new center of Western culture, which has just shifted from the Parisian Impressionist landscapes to Vienna's dark symbolism.

The brand-new Secession Gallery is ready to exhibit the avant garde masterpieces of Gustav Klimt and his contemporaries. The Gallery is designed for physical change, with moveable interior walls and adjustable lighting, and collectors and critics are ready to view the first international exhibition of new work. Albanese’s reader is a willing fly on the walls of the lavishly decorated rooms and coffee houses hosting salons of exciting discussions about art and philosophy, devouring minutiae about the lives of Adele Bloch-Bauer and her beloved siblings—namely her sister Thedy and brother Karl—her husband Ferdinand Bloch, her niece Maria, and a seductive lover: the outrageous and brilliant artist Klimt, amid his beautiful models.

This is all set to the backdrop of Vienna's wealthy activist women's self-discovery and self-actualization; burgeoning ideas of physical freedom in fashion, doing away from corsets; and sexual and intellectual freedom as well. In the chapters narrated in the voices of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Maria Altmann, sporadic italicized snippets of information about Klimt’s personal life and world history put the story in perspective. Adele and her sister Thedy lead definitively different lives, by disposition, by willful design, and by chance, but the loving relationship between Adele and Thedy's daughter, Maria, cements the sisters' connection forever.

A historical fiction novel embellished by fabricated conversations, relationships, and events, Stolen Beauty colors and enhances the true drama of the life of Adele Bloch-Bauer, known to the world as the Lady in Gold.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Atria Books

  1. During Adele’s life, there is an ongoing debate about which is more essential, beauty in art, or truth in art. What do you believe the primary aim of art should be? Why? Are beauty and/or truth integral to artistic works? Why, or why not?

  2. Do you think Adele loved Gustav Klimt, or just the lifestyle he represented? Discuss.

  3. In retaliation to his critics, Klimt paints Adele as the heroic Jewish widow Judith. Do you think his response is effective? Why or why not? On page 78, Klimt claims, “There’s no solution in words. . . . The only answer is art.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree/disagree?

  4. Throughout the book, sex and death are connected visually and in the characters’ minds. Find some passages that illustrate this connection. Why do you think this is a significant motif for Adele or Maria?

  5. Both Maria and Adele must contend with the issue of faithfulness in marriage. What are the different messages the two stories provide on this topic? Which do you believe is more important, fidelity or freedom?

  6. Another parallel in Maria and Adele’s marriages is the presence of double standards. How is each woman held to a different standard than her husband? What are the similarities and differences between the roles of women during these two generations? How do they compare to expectations for women today?

  7. While reading, did you find yourself identifying more with Adele or with Maria? In what ways did you connect to them?

  8. Discuss the role of national and religious identity in the book. What does it mean to Adele to be Jewish? What does it mean to her to be Viennese? How do these characteristics relate to each other? Does Adele’s relation to being Viennese or Jewish change for her over the course of the book?

  9. In pages 214 to 216, Maria’s mother asks her if her children will be Jewish, and whether they will speak German, reflecting anxieties she holds about life in the Jewish diaspora. How does the book depict the impact of emigration on Maria’s family? In what ways do Maria’s relationships with Judaism and Vienna parallel or diverge from Adele’s?

  10. Was there anything that surprised you about the book’s depiction of the Nazi annexation of Austria?

  11. Maria consistently describes Ferdinand as devoted to his wife Adele, claiming “my uncle had never stopped loving her” (page 216). Where do you see the presence or absence of this adoration in the chapters from Adele’s perspective?

  12. Maria admires her aunt Adele and strives to live up to her example. Are there figures in your family or life whom you feel driven to emulate, or who you fear you fall short of?

  13. Enhance Your Book Club
  14. As a group, watch the movie The Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann. Afterward, discuss as a group how the film’s depiction of Maria compares with Stolen Beauty. Are there aspects of the book that you wish had been portrayed in the movie, or vice versa?

  15. For more information about Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s portraits of her, consider reading The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, upon which the movie The Woman in Gold was based. Compare and contrast O’Connor’s nonfiction with Laurie Lico Albanese’s novelization of the Bloch-Bauers’ lives. What are the strengths and benefits of fictionalizing their stories?

  16. A number of artistic movements and artists are referred to in Stolen Beauty, some in passing and some more deeply considered. As a group, look up the artwork of some of the artists and movements mentioned: the Impressionists, the Symbolists, the Secessionists, the Expressionists, Gustav Klimt, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Rudolf von Alt, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Carl Moll, Auguste Rodin, or any others. Discuss your favorites. For any artists or movements discussed in the book that you weren’t familiar with, was their artwork as you envisioned while reading? How, or how not?

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