The Sixteen Pleasures

Overview

"Mud angels" is what the Italians call the selfless young foreigners who come to Florence in 1966 to save the city's priceless art from the Arno's flooded riverbanks. 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 ...
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The Sixteen Pleasures

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Overview

"Mud angels" is what the Italians call the selfless young foreigners who come to Florence in 1966 to save the city's priceless art from the Arno's flooded riverbanks. 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 earthly desire.

In this intriguing, provocative novel, a young American woman in Florence encounters sensual adventure, spiritual challenge, and a unique erotic manuscript.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
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.”
New Yorker

“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?”
—Amazon

 “Fascinating entertainment.with a sympathetic heroine, a suspenseful plot, a cast of colorful characters and illuminating meditations on life, art and love.”—Chicago Tribune
 “A rewarding read, with a witty heroine, a marvelous setting, and lots of fascinating detail about book conservation and the restoration of art.
Booklist

“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.”
Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
Library Journal
Like the Jimmy Stewart character who gave up his dreams for his family, Margot Harrington turned down Harvard, graduate school, and a job in her preferred career to care for her ailing mother. A 29, a librarian and book conservator at the Newberry Library, Margot decides to change her life and seek adventure. She travels to Italy after the Arno floods its banks to help rescue damaged books. When her money runs short, she moves into a convent to help the sisters restore their library. Margot finds more in Italy than she bargained for: a rare volume of pornography bound into a prayer book and an affair with a married man. Margot lovingly restores the book, with a plan to sell it to save the convent's library -- unbeknownst to the bishop. While the plot has interest and erotic potential, it tends toward the academic. The style is somewhat arrogant, with its detail about book conservation and its Italian phrases. A marginal purchase.
-- Kimberly G. Allen, MCI Corporate Information Resources Center
Library Journal
Like the Jimmy Stewart character who gave up his dreams for his family, Margot Harrington turned down Harvard, graduate school, and a job in her preferred career to care for her ailing mother. A 29, a librarian and book conservator at the Newberry Library, Margot decides to change her life and seek adventure. She travels to Italy after the Arno floods its banks to help rescue damaged books. When her money runs short, she moves into a convent to help the sisters restore their library. Margot finds more in Italy than she bargained for: a rare volume of pornography bound into a prayer book and an affair with a married man. Margot lovingly restores the book, with a plan to sell it to save the convent's library -- unbeknownst to the bishop. While the plot has interest and erotic potential, it tends toward the academic. The style is somewhat arrogant, with its detail about book conservation and its Italian phrases. A marginal purchase.
-- Kimberly G. Allen, MCI Corporate Information Resources Center
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616955809
  • Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/3/2015
  • Pages: 352

Meet the Author

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.
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Reading Group Guide

1. What factors contributed to Margot's decision to go to Florence to become a "mud angel"?

2. Margot's mother comes up throughout the novel. What bits of advice from her mother does Margot remember? What lasting effects does the affair between Margot's mother and Bruno Bruni have on Margot? Discuss what you think Margot's relationship to her mother was.

3. The Sixteen Pleasures contains vivid descriptions of the restoration of some Florentine frescoes as well as the intricate details of book conservation. Discuss how these details enrich the story.

4. In what ways is The Sixteen Pleasures a coming-of-age novel?

5. Margot's love interests, first Jed Chapin, then Sandro Postiglione, are quite different types of men. Discuss how these characters are contrasted in the book.

6. Margot's stay in the Santa Caterina convent introduces her to the lifestyle of a Carmelite order. What life lessons does she learn there and how does her experience there change her?

7. Madre Badessa, the mother abbess of Santa Caterina, is a strong female character with an agenda to preserve her convent. Discuss the measures she takes to do this. Do you think she is a feminist?

8. The Sixteen Pleasures is told from alternating points of view: Margot narrating some chapters and an all-knowing narrator telling others. Discuss how this is an effective technique to tell the story.

9. Margot's relationship with Sandro is somewhat unconventional, as is Sandro's relationship with his wife What compromises, if any, does Margot make to be with Sandro. Do you think it's worth it in the end. Does Margot?

10. The Sixteen Pleasures takes place in 1966. Discuss aspects ofthe novel that feel contemporary and those that feel old-fashioned.

11. Foods, arts, sexuality, and spirituality are interwoven in The Sixteen Pleasures. Is there a commentary on the philosophy of pleasure here?

12. Margot briefly considers a life in the convent. In the end, she decides against it. Which do you think is the saving grace of life for her, art or religion?

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