cover image The Sixteen Pleasures

The Sixteen Pleasures

Robert Hellenga, D. L. Smith. Warner Books, $22 (327pp) ISBN 978-1-56947-006-0

Graceful, assured prose, a wry but empathetic view of the human character and an authoritative command of fascinating background detail are among the distinguishing features of this deeply satisfying first novel. Set in Florence after the terrible Arno flood of 1966, it is told partially by narrator Margot Harrington, a 29-year-old American book conservator who has come to Italy as one of the ``mud angels'' who volunteer in the wake of the disaster. Margot's life has been a series of bright promises deflected to dead ends, and she hopes Florence will provide a key to her future. Art restoration expert Dottor Alessandro Postiglione--debonair, middle-aged and married--suggests that Margot lodge at a Carmelite convent whose abbess is his cousin. When the nuns discover a priceless (and proscribed) Renaissance manuscript of 16 erotic poems and drawings, the abbess asks Margot to sell it, secretly, so that the convent will have the funds to resist the overbearing bishop's efforts to seize its treasured library. Many strands wind through the rest of the narrative: details about techniques of book and art restoration, observations of convent life refracted through Margot's Protestant sensibilities and such arcane (and humorous) information as the methods by which a canonical court decides whether a man is truly impotentia coeundi (and thus entitled to an annulment). Meanwhile, Margot's love affair with Sandro is described in sensuous detail. It is remarkable that Hellenga, a recipient of a PEN fiction award for his short stories, can at this point in his career produce such a witty, sophisticated and wise novel, its erotic passages underscored by a poignant, even melancholic undercurrent of change and loss and flashes of existential meaning about the conflicting demands of spirit and flesh. 25,000 first printing; author tour. (May)