Posted by: istop4books | May 14, 2011

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hillenga

THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES by Robert Hellenga

This book started out with a bang and went downhill from there.  It wasn’t awful, it wasn’t even bad – it just wasn’t what it could have been, or maybe what I expected. The back cover promises exquisiteness, appeal from the first paragraph, adventure under pressure, intrigue of a lifetime with a forbidden lover and more…  It’s a “nice” novel with a couple of sex scenes thrown in, tastefully done.

Margot, a 20 something book conservator from Chicago takes off for Italy with a couple of bucks in her purse after severe flooding in Florence has damaged some of the city’s most treasured works of art and literature.  She and a host of others volunteer to work there to restore these world treasures.  She winds up living in a convent (home to a small but important library) and not only gets to know the nuns, but enters into a liaison with Sandro, the mother superior’s cousin.  Unfortunately, Sandro is 50 something and married.  Not hardly a “forbidden” lover in the European sense.  While at the convent, digging through the mess of damaged volumes a prayer book is found, and bound inside the prayer book is a unique volume of erotic prints and poems. Here starts her adventure (or lack of adventure).  There really was very little intrigue, adventure, nobody followed her, attempted to swipe the book or challenged her in any way.  There was really not a whole lot of mention of what these 16 pleasures were either; perhaps one or two plates were described in broad terms, but the book fell short right there and never recovered.  <br/>I loved reading about Florence and the process of restoration – the challenge of removing a 500 year old fresco from a church wall was fascinating – but I had to go back at one point to situate myself in time.  Only when Sandro mentioned WWII did I realize this was not set in modern times but in the 60s.  Margot’s voice (she narrates parts of the book) is also a bit off.  Nothing spectacularly wrong with it, but when a male author gives the narration over to a female, the perspective can often just not sit right.  I don’t believe it sat right in this book.

A part of the book which was brilliant (as I said, it wasn’t all bad) was the description of a Catholic annulment of marriage.  Holy cow!  Leave it to a bunch of celibate men to do penis measurements and vaginal corroborations. Well worth reading if only for that chapter.

And the nuns and convent life?  I think he did a decent job, but I didn’t get Margot’s reaction towards the end of the book.  I thought it was bizarre and won’t say more without a spoiler alert.

All in all, a mixed bag.

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