The Sixteen Pleasures
By Robert Hellenga
(Soho Press, Paperback, 9781616955809, 352pp.)
Publication Date: February 3, 2015
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Margot Harrington is an American volunteer, an expert at book conservancy. While struggling to save a waterlogged convent library, she discovers a fabulous volume of sixteen erotic drawings by Giulio Romano that accompany sixteen steamy sonnets by Pietro Aretino. When published more than four centuries earlier, the Vatican had insisted all copies be destroyed. This one—now unique—volume has survived.
The abbess, with wonderful aplomb, prevails upon Margot to save the order’s finances by selling the magnificently illustrated erotica, discreetly. Meaning: without the bishop’s knowledge.
The young American’s other clandestine project is a middle-aged Italian who is boldly trying radical measures to save endangered frescoes. She is 29 and available: he, older and married. He shares her sense of mission and then her bed in this ambrosial story of spiritual longing and early desire.
Robert Hellenga teaches English at Knox College in Illinois. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two Illinois Arts Council grants, and a PEN Fiction Award. The Sixteen Pleasures was his first novel, for which he did extensive research in Florence and took a bookbinding course at the Newbury Library.
Praise for The Sixteen Pleasures
“Part mystery, part romance, part guidebook. A lively first novel that communicates the heady peril, as well as the adventure, of Florence after the flood.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Elegantly moving. Everything about the narrator and heroine of this novel is appealing right from the first paragraph.”
“An erotic book about an erotic book. At the same time, we receive a crash course in Italian cuisine, convent life, the European railway system and the delicate labor involved in restoring flood-damaged works of art.”
—Maxine Kumin, author of Where I Live
“A terrific, swift novel about being in love with Italy, Italian art and Italians. If there’s such a thing as an art thriller, this is it.”—John Casey, author of Spartina
“This novel offers the reader a luxurious feast of pleasures—many many more than sixteen.”
—Tillie Olsen, author of Tell Me a Riddle
“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?”
“Fascinating entertainment . . . with a sympathetic heroine, a suspenseful plot, a cast of colorful characters and illuminating meditations on life, art and love.”
“A rewarding read, with a witty heroine, a marvelous setting, and lots of fascinating detail about book conservation and the restoration of art.”
“A wonderfully rich and absorbing story . . . Hellenga forms Florentine art, nuns, erotica, and American know-how into a kind of della Robbia arrangement of juicy forbidden fruit.”