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Readers' Group Companion to The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

Delta Trade Paperback, ISBN 0-385-31469-8, $11.95 US/$15.95 CAN


1. About the Author
2. About the Novel
3. Questions for Discussion

Readers' Group Companion to The Sixteen Pleasures © 1995 Dell Publishing.

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.

About the Novel

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.

"The suspense is so sharp that you find yourself checking ahead... to slow your heart you go back to read each elegantly moving word."
--The New Yorker

"Although the pleasure of reading this book can hardly compare with any of the 16 (not that I've known them all), still, I'd put it high on the list of pleasures one can have alone."
--USA Today

"Absorbing... fascinating entertainment."
--The Chicago Tribune

If you liked The Sixteen Pleasures, here are some other books you might enjoy:

The Finishing School by Gail Godwin

The Aspern Papers and Other Stories by Henry James

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Room With A View by E.M. Forster

Questions for Discussion:

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?