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The Sixteen Pleasures [Paperback]

Robert Hellenga
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 1 1995
Chapter One

Where I Want to Be

I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966. According to the Sunday New York Times the damage wasn't extensive, but by Monday it was clear that Florence was a disaster. Twenty feet of water in the cloisters of Santa Croce, the Cimabue crucifix ruined beyond hope of restoration, panels ripped from the Baptistry doors, the basement of the Biblioteca Nazionale completely underwater, hundreds of thousands of volumes waterlogged, the Archivio di Stato in total disarray. On Tuesday I decided to go to Italy, to offer my services as a humble book conservator, to help in any way I could, to save whatever could be saved, including myself.

The decision wasn't a popular one at home. Papa was having money troubles of his own and didn't want to pay for a ticket. And my boss at the Newberry Library didn't understand either. He already had his ticket, paid for by the library, and needed me to mind the store. There wasn't any point in both of us going, was there?

"The why don't I go and you can mind the store?"

"Because, because, because . . ."


Because it just didn't make sense. He couldn't see his way clear to granting me a leave of absence, not even a leave of absence without pay. He even suggested that the library might have to replace me, in which case . . .

But I decided to go anyway. I had enough money in my savings account for a ticket on Icelandic, and I figured I could live on the cheap once I got there. Besides, I wanted to break the mold in which my life was hardening, and I thought this might be a way to do it. Going to Florence was better than waiting around with nothing coming up.

My English teacher at Kenwood High used to say that we're like onions: you can peel off one layer after another and never get to a center, an inner core. You just run out of layers. But I think I'm like a peach or an apricot or a nectarine. There's a pit at the center. I can crack my teeth on it, or I can suck on it like a piece of candy; but it won't crumble, and it won't dissolve. The pit is an image of myself when I was nineteen. I'm in Sardegna, and I'm standing high up on a large rock–a cliff, actually–and I don't have any clothes on, and everyone is looking at me, telling me to come down, not to jump, it's too high.

It's my second time in Italy. I spent a year here with Mama when I was fifteen, and then I came back by myself, after finishing high school at home, to do the last year of the liceo with my former classmates. Now we're celebrating the end of our examinations–Silvia (who spent a year with us in Chicago), Claudia, Rossella, Giulio, Fabio, Alessandro. Names like flowers, or bells. And me, Margot Harrington. More friends are coming later. Silvia's parents (my host family) have a summer house just outside Terranova, but we're camping on the beach, five kilometers down the coast. The coast is safe, they say, though there are bandits in the centro. Wow!

It's my birthday–August first–and we've had a supper of bluefish and squid that we caught with a net. The squid taste like rubber bands, the heavy kind that I used to chew on in grade school and that boys sometimes used to snap our bottoms with in junior high. Life is sharp and snappy, too, full of promise, like the sting of those rubber bands: I've passed my examinations with distinction; I'm going to Harvard in the fall (well, to Radcliffe); I've got an Italian boyfriend named Fabio Fabbriani; and I've just been skinny-dipping in the stinging cold salt sea.

The others have put their clothes on now–I can see them below me, sitting around the remains of the fire in shorts and halter tops and shirts with the sleeves rolled up two turns, talking, glancing up nervously–but I want to savor the taste/thrill of my own nakedness a little longer, unembarrassed in the dwindling light. It's the scariest thing I've ever done, except coming to Italy in the first place.

Fabio sits with his back toward me while he smokes a cigarette, pretending to be angry because I won't come down, but when I close my eyes and will him to turn, he puts his cigarette out in the sand and turns. Just at that moment I jump, sucking in my breath for a scream but then holding it, in case I need it latter, which I do. I hit the Tyrrhenian Sea feet first, generating little waves that will, in theory, soon be lapping the beaches along the entire western coast of Italy–Sicily and North Africa, too. The Tyrrhenian Sea responds by closing over me and it's pitch, not like the pool in Chicago where I learned to swim, but deep and dark and dangerous and deadly.

The air in my lungs–the scream and I saved for just such an occasion–carries me up to the surface, and I strike out for the cove, meeting Fabio before I'm halfway there, wondering if like me he's naked under the water and not knowing for sure till we're walking waist deep and he takes me by the shoulders and kisses me and I can feel something bobbing against my legs like a floating cork. We haven't made love yet, but it's won't be long now. O dio mio. The waiting is so lovely. He squeezes my buns and I squeeze his, surprised, and then we splash in to the beach and put on our clothes.

What I didn't know at the time was that my mother had become seriously ill. Instead of spending the rest of the summer in Sardegna, I had to go back to Chicago, and then, after that, nothing happened. I mean none of the things I'd expected to happen happened. Instead of making love with Fabio Fabbriani on the verge of the Tyrrhenian Sea, I got laid on a vinyl sofa in the back room of the SNCC headquarters on Forty-seventh Street. Instead of going to Harvard, I went to Edgar Lee Masters College, where Mama had taught art history for twenty years. Instead of going to graduate school I spent two years at the Institute for Paper Technology on Green Bay Avenue; instead of becoming a research chemist I apprenticed myself to a book conservator in Hyde Park and then took a position in the conservation department of the Newberry Library. Instead of getting married and having a daughter of my own, I lived at home and looked after Mama, who was dying of lung cancer. A year went by, two years, three years, four. Mama died; Papa lost most of his money. My sister Meg got married and moved away; my sister Molly went to California with her boyfriend and then to Ann Arbor. The sixties were churning around me, and I couldn't seem to get a footing. I tried to plunge in, to get wet, to catch hold, to find a place in one of the boats tossing and turning on the white-water rapids: the sit-ins, the rock concerts, the freedom rides, SNCC, CORE, SDS, the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society. I spent a lot of time holding hands and singing "We shall overcome," I spent a lot of time buying coffee and doughnuts and rolling joints, and I spent some time on my back, too–the only position for a woman in the Movement.

I'd had no sleep on the plane; my eyes were blurry so it was hard to read; and besides, the story I was reading was as depressing as the view from the window of the train–flat, gray, poor, dreary, actively ugly rather than passively uninteresting. And I kept thinking about Papa and his money troubles and his lawsuits, and about the embroidered seventeenth-century prayer books on my work table at the Newberry that needed to be disbound, washed, mended, and resewn before Christmas for an exhibit sponsored by the Caxton Club.

So I was under a certain amount of pressure. I was looking for a sign, the way some religious people look for signs, something to let them know they're on the right track. Or on the wrong track, in which case they can turn back. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I was trying to pay attention, to notice everything–the faces of the two American women sitting opposite me in the compartment, scribbling furiously in their notebooks; the Neapolitan accent of the Italian conductor; the depressing French farmhouses, gray boxes of stucco or cinder block, I couldn't make out which.

That's what I was doing–paying attention–when the train pulled into the station at Metz and I saw the Saint-Cyr cadet on the platform, bright as the Archangel Gabriel bringing the good news to the Virgin Mary.

I'd better explain. Papa did all the cooking in our family. He started when Mama went to Italy one summer when I was nine–it was right after the war–to look at the pictures, to see for herself what she'd only seen in the Harvard University Prints series and on old three-by-four-inch tinted slides that she used to project on the dining room wall; and when she came back he kept on doing it. My sisters and I did the dishes and Papa took care of everything else, day in and day out, and whether it was Italian or French or Chinese or Malaysian, it was always wonderful, it was always special. Penne alla puttanesca, an arista tied with sprigs of rosemary, paper-thin strips of beef marinated in hoisin sauce and Szechwan peppercorns, whole fresh salmon poached in white wine and finished with a mustard sauce, chicken thighs simmered in soy sauce and lime juice, curries so fiery that at their first bite unwary guests would clutch their throats and cry out for water, which didn't help a bit. Those were our favorites, the standards against which we measured other dishes; but our very favorite treat of all was the dessert Papa made on our birthdays, instead of cake, which was supposed to look like the hats worn by cadets at Saint-Cyr, the French military academy. We'd never been to Saint-Cyr, of course, but we would have recognized a cadet anywhere in the world, if he'd been wearing his hat.

That's why I was so startled when I looked out the window of the Luxembourg-Venise Express and saw my cadet standing there on the platform–the young man Papa had teased me about, the Prince Charming who had never materialized. He was holding a suitcase in one hand and shifting his weight back and forth from one foot to the other, as if he had to go to the bathroom, and his parents were talking at him so intensely that I thought for a minute he was going to miss the train. And his hat! I couldn't believe it was a real hat and not a frozen mousse of chocolate and egg whites and whipped cream with squiggly Italian meringues running up and down the sides for braids. That hat stirred something inside me, made me feel I was doing the right thing and that I ought to keep going, that things would work out. Just to make sure I closed my eyes and willed him into the compartment, just as I had once willed Fabio Fabbriani to turn and watch me plunge feet first into the sea. As I was willing him into the compartment I was willing the American women out of it–not making my cadet's appearance contingent on their departure, however, because I was pretty sure they weren't going to budge. I kept my face down in my book and waited, eyes closed lightly, listening to the noises in the corridor.

I was, I suppose, still operating, at least subconsciously, on a fairy-tale model of reality: I was Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White, waiting for some prince whose romantic kisses would awaken my full feelings, liberate my story senses, emancipate my drowsy and constrained imagination, take me back to that last Italian summer.

The train was already in motion when the door of the compartment finally opened. I kept my eyes closed another two seconds and then looked up at–not my Prince Charming but the Neapolitan conductor, an old man so frail I'd had to help him hoist the American women's mammoth suitcases onto the overhead luggage rack. These suitcases were to luggage what Burberrys are to rainwear–lots of extra pockets and straps and mysterious zippers concealed under flaps.

I asked him about the Saint-Cyr cadet.

"The next compartment," he said. "Not your type. Too young. You need an older man like me."

"You're already married."

He shrugged, putting his whole body into it, arms, hands, shoulders, head cocked, stomach pulled in.

"Better tell your friends"–we were speaking in Italian–"that the dining car will be taken off the train before we cross the border. You need to reserve a seat early."

I nodded.

"Unless," he went on, "they have those valises stuffed with American food. Porcamattina." He glanced upward at the suitcases, tapped his cheekbone with an index finger and was gone.

I felt for these American women some of the mixed feelings that the traveler feels for the tourist. On the one hand you want to help, to show off your knowledge; on the other you don't want to get involved. I didn't want to get involved. They weren't my type. These were saltwater women–sailors, golfers, tennis players, clubwomen with suntans in November, large limbed, confident, conspicuous, firm, trim, sleek as walruses in their worsted wool suits. They reminded me of the Gold Coast women who used to show up around the edges of CORE demonstrations, with their checkbooks open, telling us how much they admired what we were doing, and how they wished they could help more. All fucked up ideologically, according to our leaders at SNCC: "They think their shit don't stink."

As far as they knew, I was a scruffy little Italian–I hadn't spoken a word of English in their presence, and I was reading an Italian novel–and it was too late to undeceive them. I had heard too much.

I knew, for example, that they'd met the previous summer at some kind of writing workshop at Johns Hopkins University and that they'd both jumped into the sack with their instructor, a novelist named Philip. I knew that Philip was bald but well hung ("like a shillelagh"). I knew that neither of them had done it dog fashion BP ("before Philip") and that they were traveling second class because Philip had told them they'd get more material that way for the stories they were going to write now that they were divorced.

Part of their agenda, I gathered, was to notice things, to pay attention. Maybe they were looking for signs, too, maybe not; in either case they seemed to be trying to impress the details of European railroad travel onto the pages of their marbled composition books by sheer physical force. Nothing escaped their notice, not even the signs, in French, German and Italian, warning passengers not to throw things out the window and not to pull the cord on the signal d'alarme. All the details went into their notebooks–the fine of not less than 5,000 FF, the prison term of not less than one year. And when one noticed something, the other did, too: the instructions on the window latch, the way the armrests worked, the captions on the faded views of Chartres Cathedral that hung on the walls of the compartment above the backs of the seats. (I was tempted to look at them myself, but I didn't want to give myself away or interrupt their game.)

I kept my nose in my book–Natalia Ginzburg's Lessico famigliare. It was a strenuous hour, and I was glad when, simultaneously, panting like dogs after a good run, they closed their notebooks and resumed their conversation.

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Product Description

From Amazon

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

A young American book conservator's discovery, while in Florence, of a volume of 16 sensual drawings with equally erotic sonnets leads her to a romantic encounter.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
Books that go into rich details typically don't interest me. "Get to the point already!" is something I might think if an author diddles around too long on description without advancing the plot or the character development.
Hellenga goes into a great detail about art and books and their restoration and somehow makes it all interesting. Perhaps he's tapped into the psyche of book lovers by addressing one of our fears: Imagine your most favorite, rare books that you've collected have been damaged and need to be restored or they'll be lost forever. In this case, the author is talking about the treasures of an entire country and not just one person.
But this is just the setting and background. Hellenga is also able to apply his same sensual descriptions to his characters and describes the thoughts and life of an American woman in Italy quite ably.
I've given several copies of "The Sixteen Pleasures" to my friends, particularly women. It's that good. Quite simply, it is sumptuous and sensual and a pleasure to read.
Far too many readers make a point of Hellenga being a man. Donna Tart wrote as a man in "The Secret History" and Jeffrey Eugenides wrote as a hermaphrodite in "Middlesex." In both cases the authors nailed their characters. Why so hard to believe that Hellenga, as a man, can't handle a female character? Besides, anyone with the illusion that Hellenga is all touchy feely only needs to read his book "The Fall of the Sparrow" in which he describes the life of a typical older professor who has frequent sex with one of his female students. If anything, he's versatile. If you love "Pleasures" you might not be as enthralled with "Sparrow" which, although a good read in my opinion, just has a different reading audience.
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4.0 out of 5 stars What were the Sixteen Pleasures? July 17 2003
This book had a wonderful start, and the main character was so well-defined. I loved her nostagic moments, and stories of her family and travels. I also liked the Italian lessons I got from the book. The premise of the book was quite fascinating--the "Mud Angels", and the book restoration and conservation. The convent scenes were also well-written, and I found myself very interested in the lives of these nuns. There were so many good things about the book, although there were a few sections of the book that I was unclear of what was going on, and what it had to do with the overall story... I loved her plan to help the convent's library, and escape the notice of the bishop.
On the back cover it states that she embarks on the "sixteen pleasures" mentioned in the book... with her "forbidden lover"... I thought this was too dramatic--Sandro was not forbidden, and she did not make a big deal about going through each of the pleasures as the back cover synopsis would have you think...
Overall a good book, although a little long in some places.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and lyrical April 9 2003
By HeyJudy
THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES epitomizes perfection in a novel. This is a small book that uses language which is quiet, and phrasing that is careful and deliberate. The novel tells a story which is distinctive, complex and compelling; the plot is unpredictable right up until the last page. Only after completing THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES does it become obvious how rich and full a novel it actually is.
THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES is set in Florence, definitely one of the most beautiful places on our planet. As the tale unfolds, the reader is instructed about the great flooding of the Arno in 1966, about cloistered religious orders, and about the preservation of rare books.
The "pleasures" of the title allude to a medieval ... manual that is the property of a religious order of nuns, a manual which has been damaged in the flood. The whole novel is reported in the first person by the narrator, a female book restorer from America. She is seduced by everything with which she comes in contact, including the life of a cloistered nun, the Tuscan region itself, and a male art restorer with whom she re-enacts some of the pleasures.
At all times, the language, under the control of author Robert Hellenga, is lyrical. THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES is as close to perfection as a novel gets.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Watch Me Become Venus Aug. 2 2002
Ok, so maybe not Venus. Our heroine, Margot, goes to Florence (where else?)to find some adventure before she becomes to old and timid to seek adventure. She does no small piece of finding adventure, either. Margot begins the story in one way, but through her experiences, becomes a transformed person. She truly finds the Venus within. The reader is brought along as witness.
First, she sleeps with an academic, who happens to be a cad, but at least amuses her for the moment. There is a scene depicted in the book where the two are making love when Margot realizes that her girlfriend is in the room with them. While Margot is trying to shoo her out behind her lovers back, her friend is directing Margot on how to move her body to give her lover more pleasure. It is quite funny.
Next, she ends up becoming embroiled in an affair with a much older, married, Italian gentleman. While carrying on this affair, Margot is helping an order of nuns restore their library collection which has been ruined in a terrible flood. During this restoration the abess brings to her attention a 16th century pornographic drawing collection, The Sixteen Pleasures, once order by the pope to be burned, now likely worth tons of money if authentic. The abess very much would like to have the book, if authentic, sold so that the abbey could remain financially independant and therefore free from the tyrannical rule of the local bishop.
The tale of Margot's authenticating and selling the book stand interwoven with Morgot's affair. Eventually Morgot finds that she has fallen in love, both with her lover and with the women in the abbey. You must read the book to find out what choices she makes.
The tale reads like a wonderful cabernet wine.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars This was written by a MAN??
This was written by a MAN??
Wow, the fact that a man wrote this book will blow your slippers off. Read more
Published on Sept. 26 2003 by Peggy Vincent
4.0 out of 5 stars A poetic and pleasureable read.
I enjoyed the mystery and poetry of this book. The combination of a nunnery, erotic engravings, and a 29 year old American woman in Florence... well what else can I say.
Published on June 14 2003 by "tsunamidreamer"
5.0 out of 5 stars A great novel...
When I look back on the 300+ books I've read in the past ten years, Robert Hellega's "The Sixteen Pleasures" is near the top of my list of irresistable, poetic, life... Read more
Published on Feb. 10 2003 by Alex Nichols, author of Shadow Rock
3.0 out of 5 stars Visit Florence, Italy
and learn how to restore Renaissance monographs at the same time. Very well written. Characters are fully drawn. Most satisfying.
Published on Jan. 24 2003 by "gokathy"
5.0 out of 5 stars Una Bella Cosa
Robert Hellenga's ability to capture both a woman's voice and the Italian landscape is true evidence of his talent. Read more
Published on Oct. 8 2002 by Shannon Wallace
4.0 out of 5 stars Sixteen Pleasures
It will be interesting to see what Nicole Kidman will bring to this role. The author captures the intimacy of the small town that is Florence. Read more
Published on June 4 2002
3.0 out of 5 stars Took Me Two Months to Read
Unlike other novels I have read in the last year, I couldn't get the momentum to read past the portions that bogged down. For me, this area had to do with life in the convent. Read more
Published on March 3 2002 by William GW Barnes
4.0 out of 5 stars Would have liked to meet her in Florence...
This book moves along at a pace of its own much like looking down at the River in Florence after the great flood had passed. Read more
Published on Feb. 26 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved it!
I loved this novel and felt that I could really identify with the main character. I travel to Florence, Italy, quite often (my boyfriend lives there) and maybe that's why I... Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2001 by E. Mills
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