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Sixteen Pleasures


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About the Author

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.


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)

Like the Jimmy Stewart character who gave up his dreams for his family, Margot Harrington turned down Harvard, graduate school, and a job in her preferred career to care for her ailing mother. A 29, a librarian and book conservator at the Newberry Library, Margot decides to change her life and seek adventure. She travels to Italy after the Arno floods its banks to help rescue damaged books. When her money runs short, she moves into a convent to help the sisters restore their library. Margot finds more in Italy than she bargained for: a rare volume of pornography bound into a prayer book and an affair with a married man. Margot lovingly restores the book, with a plan to sell it to save the convent's library--unbeknownst to the bishop. While the plot has interest and erotic potential, it tends toward the academic. The style is somewhat arrogant, with its detail about book conservation and its Italian phrases. A marginal purchase.-- Kimberly G. Allen, MCI Corporate Information Resources Ctr., Washington, D.C.

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