The Sixteen Pleasures

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A professor of literature at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Robert Hellenga has published his short fiction in a variety of respected literary journals. THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES is Hellenga’s first novel. A student of Italian culture, Hellenga uses his intimate knowledge of Italy to paint a vivid picture of Florence that adds immeasurably to the texture of his novel. He uses the 1966 Arno River flood as a backdrop to his intricate and intensely passionate story of a young female librarian and book conservator, Margot Harrington, who travels to Italy in search of adventure and to aid in the restoration of damaged books. When Harrington’s funds run low, she seeks living quarters in a convent. The convent has a library that is also in need of restoration, and Harrington promises to assist.

During the restoration process, a rare volume of erotica is found bound together with a prayer book. The volume of erotica, known as “The Sixteen Pleasures,” consists of erotic drawings by Giulio Romano and sonnets by Aretino. The volume was supposedly destroyed in 1523, after the Vatican had labeled it scandalous. Since the convent is in dire need of funds, the abbess asks Harrington to restore the book and then discreetly sell it, without the bishop’s knowledge. In addition to the discovery of the rare erotic volume, Harrington has an affair with an older married Italian art historian. The affair eventually ends, but not without Harrington becoming wiser for the experience. “The Sixteen Pleasures” is eventually sold at auction for a large amount of money. Hellenga’s work is a multi-layered novel, with sensual discovery and high adventure, as well as its detailed portrait of Italian life and travelogue. As a first novel, THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES exceeds all expectations.