Stolen Beau­ty

By – February 2, 2017

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.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Atria Books

  • 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?
  • Do you think Adele loved Gus­tav Klimt, or just the lifestyle he rep­re­sent­ed? Discuss.
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • While read­ing, did you find your­self iden­ti­fy­ing more with Adele or with Maria? In what ways did you con­nect to them?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • Was there any­thing that sur­prised you about the book’s depic­tion of the Nazi annex­a­tion of Austria?
  • 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?
  • 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?

Enhance Your Book Club 

  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?