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  • The Sixteen Pleasures
  • Written by Robert Hellenga
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385314695
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  • The Sixteen Pleasures
  • Written by Robert Hellenga
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781569478110
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  • The Sixteen Pleasures
  • Written by Robert Hellenga
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9781616955809
  • Our Price: $16.00
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The Sixteen Pleasures

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On Sale: September 01, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-56947-811-0
Published by : Soho Press Soho Press
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

1
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 . . .”
      “Yes?”
      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.”
      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.
Robert Hellenga

About Robert Hellenga

Robert Hellenga - The Sixteen Pleasures
Robert Hellenga teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, six Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowships, an Illinois Arts Council Literacy Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award.
Praise

Praise

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.”
The 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


From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

In this highly acclaimed bestseller, 29-year-old American book conservator Margot Harrington arrives in Florence, Italy, to save the water-logged library of a Carmelite convent. In her work, she uncovers The Sixteen Pleasures, a curious, centuries-old volume of sixteen erotic drawings coupled with sixteen steamy sonnets that sets off a flame of controversy throughout the Catholic Church, and changes Margot's life in ways she never imagined.

About 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 is Hellenga's first novel, for which he did extensive research in Florence and took a bookbinding course at the Newbury Library. The idea of including The Sixteen Pleasures in his fictional story of Margot Harrington began in jest, as there are many, many jokes throughout English literature on this erotic Renaissance book. Somewhere along the line, it became the engine of the book. The character of Margot was inspired by Hellenga's three daughters, all of whom have traveled extensively and told him of their experiences. It took Hellenga three years to write The Sixteen Pleasures and another three to get it published. He is currently doing research in Bologna, Italy, for his next novel. He lives in Illinois with his wife and three daughters.

Discussion Guides

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 of the 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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