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The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga
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The Sixteen Pleasures (1994)

by Robert Hellenga

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The Sixteen Pleasures – Robert Hellenga

4 stars

“What is amazing is how intensely you care about this woman” – The New Yorker

That quote appears on the back cover of my battered paperback copy of The Sixteen Pleasures. It’s true. I did come to care a great deal about Margot Harrington and her 1966 sojourn of self-discovery in flood stricken Florence. However, the truly amazing thing is how accurately Robert Hellenga managed to capture the inner voice and personality of a young woman.

Margot is 29 and dissatisfied with her life. Her mother’s death interrupted the future she thought she would have and seems to have set her adrift. In the aftermath of the flood, she takes her skills as a book conservator to Florence to help with the clean-up. She ends up in a convent, helping the sisters rescue their library. In the convent library, they find a Renaissance masterpiece of erotic verse with pictures. Margot restores the book, and helps the convent realize the profits form its sale.

Margot finds a book of erotica, but her story, as told by Hellenga, is not erotic. Oh yes, she does fall in love and has an affair, but it is not overly graphic. Mostly this story is played out through Margot’s inner reflections about her life and her relationships. Hellenga also gives us a peek into the thoughts of her lover, the likable, deceitful, Dottor Sandro Postiglione. My favorite character was the Mother Superior of the convent. I would have enjoyed more of her pithy, insightful comments. I also enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of the art and the details of the restorations. I would have liked a great deal more of that.

Margot may discover many things about her own sexuality in Florence, but she also spends much time reflecting on her relationships to other women. In the end, when she finally takes control of her own life, (and I wondered if she would ever get there) her loyalty to her sisters, both biological and metaphorical, is the overriding factor. It is so much a woman’s story. I’m looking forward to reading more of Hellenga’s writing to see what other amazing things he can do.


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1 vote msjudy | May 30, 2016 |
Margot is lost. She is 29 years old, working as a book conservator in a local library, her mother is dead of cancer, and her father is a shell of his former self. So when the Arno floods Florence, she goes to Italy to help recover and restore whatever she can, including herself. While there, she comes into possession of a very rare Renaissance book of erotica, bound within a religious book of prayer. This book takes her on a journey she never expected.

While I really enjoyed the concept of this novel, I didn't feel it lived up to it's potential. I never really connected with Margot, and the other characters seemed to be very two-dimensional. The best part of the book for me was the descriptions of Florenece and the Italian countryside, with the explinations of the conservation of the books and art a close second. However I think these lengthy descriptions of the conservation techniques could get tedious for many readers. This book won't keep me from reading more of Robert Hellenga, but he's not going to be at the top of my list either. ( )
  Mootastic1 | Jan 15, 2016 |
Needing a change and some adventure in her life, Margot Harrington felt a calling to travel to Florence in 1966 to aid in the restoration of art and books after the famous flood. Many foreigners arrived in the city, but Margot was a little removed from the other “Mud Angels” because she was an experienced antique book restorer and she was very familiar with Florence, having lived there for several years as a child. Circumstance leads her to end up living at and working in the library of an impoverished abbey. The nuns entrusted to help her rescue the waterlogged books come across an old prayer book, but this was no ordinary prayer book. This book is bound together with another small book – the banned (thought lost) erotic poems of Aretino.

Margot first lovingly restores the book and then entrusted by the, surprisingly worldly, Abbess attempts to sell the volume to help the abbey. Her lover tries to undermine her sale to make a profit for himself. The Abbot, to whom the Abbess reports, forbids her to sell the banned book and life itself seems to be throwing out roadblocks every step of Margot’s way. Never one to be daunted, Margot persists with her quest leading to some interesting adventures.

From the title of the book and the “blurb” I read describing it I expected this book to be an “erotic” adventure. And, in a small way it was, but it was mostly about Margot finding herself. I enjoyed the story but as so often happens in works of historical fiction, I enjoyed the descriptions of Florence, the flood and the restorations even more, particularly the book restorations and the “peeling” of the water damaged frescoes.
( )
  ChristineEllei | Jul 14, 2015 |
Engaging story complete with historical detail about the floods of Florence, an ancient text of erotic poems and drawings, and romantic relationships. The descriptions of the background behind the forbidden book and the techniques used in manuscript restoration and preservation were really interesting. It also takes a close look at some of the more ridiculous tenets of Catholicism. It was worth reading for the memories of time spent in Florence. ( )
  sushitori | Aug 1, 2013 |


Eh. ( )
  cmkl | Apr 2, 2013 |
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To Virginia, Rachel, Heather and Caitrine
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I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
"I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966. On Tuesday I decided to go to Italy, to offer my services as a humble book conservator.to save whatever could be saved, including myself."

The Italians called them "Mud Angels, " the young foreigners who came to Florence in 1966 to save the city's treasured art from the Arno's flooded banks. American volunteer Margot Harrington was one of them, finding her niche in the waterlogged library of a Carmelite convent. For within its walls she discovered a priceless Renaissance masterwork: a sensuous volume of sixteen erotic poems and drawings.

Inspired to sample each of the ineffable sixteen pleasures, Margot embarks on the intrigue of a lifetime with a forbidden lover and the contraband volume--a sensual, life-altering journey of loss and rebirth in this exquisite novel of spiritual longing and earthly desire.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385314698, Paperback)

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?

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:32 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The adventure of Margot Harrington, an American book conservator saving treasures in the 1966 flood in Florence. She is asked by the mother superior of a convent to help secretly sell a banned book to raise money for the convent. It's the only copy of The Sixteen Pleasures, a volume of sonnets and erotic drawings, ordered destroyed by the Vatican when it was published in 1523.… (more)

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