In 1966, 29-year-old Margot Harrington heads off to Florence, intent on doing her bit to protect its precious books from the great floods--and equally intent on adventure. Serendipity, in the shape of the man she'll fall in love with, leads her to an abbey run by the most knowing of abbesses and work on its library begins. One day a nun comes upon a shockingly pornographic volume, bound with a prayer book. It turns out to be Aretino
's lost erotic sonnets, accompanied by some rather anatomical engravings. Since the pope had ordered all copies of the Sixteen Pleasures
burned, it could be worth a fortune and keep the convent autonomous. The abbess asks Margot to take care of the book and check into its worth: "We have to be cunning as serpents and innocent as doves," she warns.
Soon our heroine finds her identity increasingly "tangled up" with the volume and with Dottor Postiglione, a man with an instinct for happiness--but also one for self-preservation. Margot enjoys the secrecy and the craft (the chapters in which she rebinds the folios are among the book's finest). Much of the book's pleasure stems from Robert Hellenga's easy knowledge, which extends to Italian complexities. Where else would you learn that, in cases of impotence, legal depositions are insufficient: "Modern couples often take the precaution of sending postcards to each other from the time of their engagement, leaving the message space blank so that it can be filled in later if the couple wishes to establish grounds for an annulment." Luckily, however, there are also shops that sell old postcards, "along with the appropriate writing instruments and inks."
Though The Sixteen Pleasures is initially in the tradition of American innocent goes abroad to encounter European experience, Hellenga's depth (and lightness) of characterization and description lift it high above its genre. And what better book than one about loving and loving books?
From Publishers Weekly
Graceful, assured prose, a wry but empathetic view of the human character and an authoritative command of fascinating background detail are among the distinguishing features of this deeply satisfying first novel. Set in Florence after the terrible Arno flood of 1966, it is told partially by narrator Margot Harrington, a 29-year-old American book conservator who has come to Italy as one of the "mud angels" who volunteer in the wake of the disaster. Margot's life has been a series of bright promises deflected to dead ends, and she hopes Florence will provide a key to her future. Art restoration expert Dottor Alessandro Postiglione--debonair, middle-aged and married--suggests that Margot lodge at a Carmelite convent whose abbess is his cousin. When the nuns discover a priceless (and proscribed) Renaissance manuscript of 16 erotic poems and drawings, the abbess asks Margot to sell it, secretly, so that the convent will have the funds to resist the overbearing bishop's efforts to seize its treasured library. Many strands wind through the rest of the narrative: details about techniques of book and art restoration, observations of convent life refracted through Margot's Protestant sensibilities and such arcane (and humorous) information as the methods by which a canonical court decides whether a man is truly impotentia coeundi (and thus entitled to an annulment). Meanwhile, Margot's love affair with Sandro is described in sensuous detail. It is remarkable that Hellenga, a recipient of a PEN fiction award for his short stories, can at this point in his career produce such a witty, sophisticated and wise novel, its erotic passages underscored by a poignant, even melancholic undercurrent of change and loss and flashes of existential meaning about the conflicting demands of spirit and flesh. 25,000 first printing; author tour.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.