After reading and reviewing The Italian Lover, a sensual work of literary fiction and my favorite book of 2007, I just had to grab Robert Hellenga’s earlier novel, The Sixteen Pleasures. This book recounts the beginning of Margo’s adventure in Italy, whereas The Italian Lover picks up the story 25 years later.
Margo Harrington, a 29-year-old from Chicago, came to Florence as a book conservator working to save and rebind the books that were damaged in the Arno Flood of 1966. She finds herself working at the Convent of Santa Caterina Nuova, restoring valuable books, when an irreplaceable work of Renaissance Erotica, the Aretino—sixteen erotic poems and sixteen erotic drawings—is discovered. Madre Badessa entrusts Margo with this book, afraid that the Church will either want to destroy it on moral grounds or sell it and keep all of the proceeds. She wants Margo to find out what it’s worth—and possibly sell it for the convent. The problem is that the legal owner isn’t the convent of Santa Caterina but the bishop of Florence. Also, the book’s most promising buyers would be outside of Italy, and it’s illegal for works of art to be taken out of the country. She confides in an art conservator, Sandro, and the book opens up a passionate love affair between the two. But can she trust him with this valuable book?
The Sixteen Pleasures not only takes us through the journey of the Aretino, but it also enters the soul of this young woman. She finally realizes that this “little book of pictures wasn’t just a valuable piece of property; it wasn’t just a unique copy of the most powerful work of erotic art produced by the Renaissance…. It was the adventure that fate had placed in my path. I couldn’t walk away from it….” “It was my story…. Without it I wouldn’t know who I was or where I was going.”
Since I read The Italian Lover first, I already knew the outcome of The Sixteen Pleasures. However, I immediately felt that I had to read this book, to learn more about the struggle for the Aretino. I wanted to read about Margo’s early life in Italy and how she evolved into the woman that she became in the latter novel. And I must say that I wasn’t disappointed. The story grabs and takes a hold of you, remaining unpredictable until the very end. Robert Hellenga delves into a woman’s mind, expressing her point of view with more depth and clarity than even most female authors do. He paints his characters with as much vivid color as he does his setting—exposing their intense emotions and insecurities.
Though The Italian Lover is still my favorite of the two—and though it stands well on its own—I would recommend reading The Sixteen Pleasures first. Then immediately proceed to The Italian Lover. Together, these two novels will take you on a magnificent journey.
(review previously published on www.nightsandweekends.com)