THE LIFE OF LORD ELGIN and his lady, Mary Nisbet, could have been a powerful historical novel, combining the colorful world of the East with political intrigue, warfare, obsession, disease and adultery. Lord Elgin, appointed British ambassador to the Turkish court of Sultan Selim II, took advantage of his position to strip the Greeks, then under Turkish rule, of their antiquities. Like Sherman marching through Georgia, he left devastation in his wake, sending back to England vast amounts of marble statuary and entire libraries of monasteries. His greatest feat was the despoiling of the Parthenon whose sculptures, now called the Elgin Marbles, belong to the British Museum.

Elgin defended this wholesale theft to his wife as love of art, but it soon became obvious that he was obsessed, in a state of mental deterioration paralleled by physical infirmities and a facial deformity that suggests he might have had syphilis. Lady Mary, a new bride when Elgin went to Turkey and a mother four times over by the time they came back, suffered increasingly at the hands of her erratic, unstable husband. Their marriage was dissolved when Elgin sued her for divorce on the grounds of adultery.

How could an obviously fine writer like Theodore Vrettos miss the boat with such a terrific plot? And miss it, he does, because Lord Elgin's Lady is monumentally boring, a travelogue through Turkey, Greece and Italy in the early 1800s with a few dollops of sex and childbirth thrown in. Vrettos is not successful at writing from the perspective of the opposite sex, and he fails to convince that he has any understanding of what made Lady Mary tick. In addition, he is so absorbed with descriptions of churches, monuments and buildings that his characters are neglected. Consequently, I never knew what they looked like or how they reacted to one another. Only at the end of the novel, when Lady Mary is on trial for her marriage and the writer is finally focusing on characters instead of sculptures, does the narrative come alive. Unfortunately, it's too late by then; most readers will have fallen asleep 13 chapters earlier.