Robert Hellenga
New York: Dell Publishing, 1995
ISBN # 0-385-31469-8.
369 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2005

Book conservator Margot Harrington hurried off to Florence, Italy in November 1966. The city had suffered a devastating flood and she joined the stream of volunteers who rushed there to save Florence’s art heritage.

She had a small savings, left her job as a book conservator which she risked losing and set off back to Italy where she’d formerly lived, finished high school and where she spoke the language fluently.

Having “set” the novel above I’m very unsure where to turn next. I checked some on-line reviews of the book and all of them jump to her “work” (basically unpaid) in Florence, the discovery of the only known copy of a famous 16th century pornographic book, laced with 16 drawings of 16 sexual pleasures. The critics follow Margot’s work restoring this book and her struggle to be sure it enables the nuns in whose library it was found to carry on their library work.

And, it is emphasized in all accounts that in the process she tries each of the 16 pleasures.

All of this is true – the 16 pleasures, both the book and her experiences of them seemingly drive the book.

But that’s not what actually drives the book, and, on my view, it is not what harms the book. A more focused theme such as that line suggested by the critics would have disciplined author Hellenga and given us a much shorter, and I think, better novel.

Instead we have, effectively a travel journal of her Florence experiences connected with past life experiences which the Florence trip of 1966-67 sparks in her memory.

What’s told is told well, episode by episode and each is fairly interesting. However, the book does not hang together as a coherent unity and often aggravated me at least in the rambling and self-indulgent style Robert Hellenga chose.

I read on, wanting to follow the seemingly driving plot – the 16 pleasures, the book of 1525 and the experiences of 1966. We actually get relatively little of these, but lots “about” them – about her in the sense of surroundings, but not at the center.

Honing in a bit more, then, of that line of the plot, Margot not only goes to work in the Carmelite convent in Florence, but she lives there as well. She is a Protestant and doesn’t understand the religious life well and as she works side by side with the nuns she unpacks that whole theme and does it well.

Two nuns, while placing absorbent paper between pages of one of the soaked books, discovered it is actually two books – a prayer book bound together with Pietro Aretino’s book of the 16 pleasures.

The book had been a scandal in its time and it was thought every copy had been destroyed. When the superior learns its history she realizes its potential value and turns it over to Margot to dispose of to raise funds for the convent’s library.

Margot is excited by the prospect and takes the work to the apartment of her older lover, Allesandro Postiglione and they proceed to try all 16 pleasures.

Honed to this part of the novel, I think it would have sparkled for me, but again, the side-stories, many of them interesting little episodes in some minor characters’ lives, just overloaded the book, often aggravating me.

I kept on reading and am happy I did. The main story stretches our credulity in the end, but was fun all the way through.

Author Robert Hellenga tells stories well. I think were he to have exercised more discipline and focus he would have produced a much better work.

I did think that Hellenga did a nice job of entering into the imagined consciousness of a main character who was a young woman. I found the character of Margot quite believable.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett