1. About the Author
2. About the Novel
3. Questions for Discussion
Readers' Group Companion to The Sixteen Pleasures © 1995 Dell
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
"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."
"Absorbing... fascinating entertainment."
--The Chicago Tribune
If you liked The Sixteen Pleasures, here are some other books you might
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
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
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