Margot Harrington, an American volunteer in Florence, is an expert at book conservancy. While struggling to save a waterlogged convent library, she comes across a fabulous volume of sixteen erotic drawings by Giulio Romano, accompanying sixteen steamy sonnets by Pietro Aretino. When first published over four centuries ago, the Vatican ordered all copies destroyed. This one—now unique—volume has survived.
The abbess prevails upon Margot to save the order’s finances by selling the magnificently illustrated erotica discreetly—meaning without the bishop’s knowledge.
Margot’s other clandestine project is a middle-aged Italian who is boldly attempting radical measures to save endangered frescoes. She is 29 and available; he, older and married. He shares her sense of mission and soon her bed in this daring story of spiritual longing and earthly desire.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.48(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.98(d)|
About the Author
Robert Hellenga was educated at the University of Michigan and Princeton University. His novels include The Fall of a Sparrow, Blues Lessons, The Italian Lover, and The Confessions of Frances Godwin. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two Illinois Arts Council grants, and a PEN Fiction Award.
Read an Excerpt
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?
“Then 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 later, 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 that 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 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 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 stormy 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.”
“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.
Table of Contents
1. Where I Want to Be,
2. Pockets of Silence,
3. The Road Not Taken,
4. Un uomo mediterraneo,
5. What Nuns Talk About at Night,
6. What Sort of a Thing Is a Man?,
7. Pray Without Ceasing,
8. Una cittadina,
9. Non voglio morire,
10. The Sixteen Pleasures of Pietro Aretino,
11. The Sixteen Pleasures Restored,
12. Git Abruzzi,
13. Impotentia coeundi,
14. An Instinct for Happiness,
15. Mont Blanc,
16. Remedia amoris,
17. Under the Hammer,
18. The Elgin Marbles,
19. A Nun Takes the Veil,
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is riveting -- at times funny, always thought-provoking, often poignant. Its theme is taken from the Robert Frost poem the protagonist quotes: "two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I could not travel both and be one traveler." What's our path in life? When we're shaken from the path we wanted, can we still make the journey our own?
Hellenga has done a wonderful job in creating a believable character, and putting her in a beautiful setting. The story is for book and art lovers everywhere. I enjoyed the detail to the book conservation that took place with the 'mud angels' and was particularly happy that this book strove to pay such attention to a story along those lines. Interesting, and Unique. I have passed this gem on to many others as a must read.
So! There's a movement in Florence to rescue Italian national treasures from permanent flood damage, calling folks from all over the world to arms, although instead of using guns and ammo, they bring with them love of Italy, hope and a sense of adventure. One of these "mud angels" is Margot Harrington, in love with Italy, not so in love with her life in humdrum America. She recalls her younger days in Italy, cliff-diving, falling in lust, living dangerously in complete abandon, the whole world before her - and since then has become a book conservator for Newberry, dreaming of what once was and most of all, could have been before her mother died, catapulting her into a totally different life of normal schools, normal jobs and that lingering want of something more. So she hears about the flood, is off to Italy in no time flat to offer her conservator-skills to a good cause and fun time, and ... well, does she find what she's looking for? What exactly is that? You could read to find out, but walk don't run to the bookstore...I didn't fall completely in love with this book, in the same way that I had hoped to fall in love with it (and Italy) on reading it. There just wasn't enough magic and romance for me. Strange, considering it is technically a romance of this young woman's life in Florence, the men she meets, the experiences saving Italy's artwork, all the while dropping some Italian for us monolingual (and German bilingual) folks to spice up the narrative. But I did not fall in love. The book was good, however, and I really do recommend it for some relatively light reading, an almost coming-of-age novel for the 20-35ish young woman (I consider that an in-between age -- she's not a Carrie, she's not the cast of Friends, she's not Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love). And this is also an in-between kind of book - it's not erotica, that's for sure, it's not just a romance, it's more about this woman's affair with Italy, hoping for something she doesn't quite understand, wanting a life she is still not sure she wants. In this way, we can all relate, right? Margot is a believable, if not terribly interesting narrator - we believe and enjoy whatever's going on with her, and root for her to get over that dude and start her real Italian romance.All in all, pretty good. So I'm glad I picked it up, it kept me reading and I loved the Italian culture bits.
A well-written and engaging novel about an American woman, Margot, who goes to Italy to restore books after a flood. While she is working in a convent, a priceless, erotic Renaissance manuscript is discovered there. The book tells the story of Margot's conservation work and what happens to the manuscript, and also of her relationships with another conservator, with her family, and above all with herself. The blurb and reviews variously describe it as a thriller (it isn't), a mystery (it isn't), a romance (nope, not that either) and as funny (not a word I'd use) and erotic (you guessed it - another no - 0 out of 5 there, then). Anyone reading the opening this book in expectation of any or all of these elements will be disappointed. There are a number of scenes which could be categorised as earthy, vaguely humorous or mildly suspenseful, but this is as far as it goes. What this book is, is an engaging exploration of Margot's personal growth, relationships and sexuality, and also of Italy, Roman Catholicism, literature and the importance of the preservation of literary heritage. Some of these themes are handled extremely well, while the resolution of others is a little less satisfying - but on whole these themes are tackled both deftly and sympathetically.
I'm not sure yet how I feel about this book. I read it for a book discussion group that will meet later this week, and I'm curious to see how this group related to this fictional account of a young American book conservator who goes off to Florence in 1966 to help restore books damaged in the great flood. The parts having to do with the city and the techniques of restoration I found fascinating. But the parts about the romance....hmmmm....Margot, the heroine discovers a volume of illustrated love poems showing what are generally regarded as pornographic sketches of the 16 pleasures referred to in the poetry. The book is bound within a prayerbook and is on the shelves of the convent where she is boarding. The Abbess asks her to restore it and then see if she can sell it without the bishop knowing since his Eminence would then take away the book and either destroy it, or sell it and keep the money. Margot meets an urbane romantic Italian (natch!) although to me he is the typical bodice ripping Italian stud.. they embark on a romance while restoring the book, and trying out the 16 pleasures themselves. The blurb calls this an erotic book about an erotic book. Using my limited Italian, I'll wave my hand side to side up and down, and say mezzo, mezzo Not all that erotic, and I'm really not sure I care for the ending. It was worth reading for the memories of Florence and the info about how the books were saved.
I hated this book! I have never read a travel book that made me want to stay so far away from another country. But I thought the protagonist was a twit and her taste in men appalling, her adventures low-key, her friends boring. Even the author's descriptions of the sensuous Italian lifestyle left me rolling my eyes. This book made illicit sex, great art, and the city of Florence sound like a total waste of time. One of my least favorite novels, ever.
A journey to finding, re-binding, and finally letting go of a singularily unique tome leads a young woman to discover what pleasures can be found in day-to-day as well as one-in-a-lifetime experiences. Loved this book. A great read.
Maybe it is the Chicago references, or maybe its the tantalizing descriptions of Italy, or maybe it is the lead character's falability, but I really loved this book from page one. A novel that has a great story, interesting characters, set in one of the world's most romantic countries -- and a writer whose work reads fast, even with foreign languages interspersed throughout the text. Not only did I enjoy the story, I learned a lot about art and book conservation and restoration. I can't wait to read his other novels.
I first read this book in 1995, just prior to a trip to Florence, and loved it. Since then, I've re-read the book three or four times and each time I enjoy it. A few months ago, I compiled a list of my favorite books, and The Sixteen Pleasures ranked quite high on the list. Highly recommended!
An intelligent story of art, love, and Italy all packed in a quick read. Chicagoans will love the references to the Newberry Library, and art lovers will be intrigued with all of the restoration information, and I especially enjoyed the love story, one you could believe.