The Sixteen Pleasures

Written by Robert Hellenga
Review by Sally Zigmond

This is a reprint of a novel first published in the USA in 1989. It tells the story of 29-year-old Margot Harrington, a qualified book conservator, who joins the many people who made their way to Florence in the wake of the devastating floods of 1966, in which not only lives were lost but the precious ancient artworks and books that were not destroyed were in a dreadful state. Although not one of the famous ‘mud angels’, young people who helped clear the cellars and streets of the flood-wrecked treasures, Margot is able, because of her skill, to do more.

She is given work helping the nuns in an impoverished convent to restore their collection of fine books by a chance meeting with Doctor Postiglione, a renowned Florentine bureaucrat responsible for the city’s heritage. Not only does she become his lover, she then finds a unique book of pornographic/erotic engravings by the celebrated artist Giulio Romano and sonnets by Pietro Aretino. This volume is the only one in existence because of its toxic nature; all other copies were destroyed on orders from the Vatican. Margot is convinced that, if restored and sold discreetly, it would earn millions for the convent.

I found The Sixteen Pleasures extremely difficult. Partly a guide book to Florence in the mid twentieth-century, partly details of the restoration of precious flood-damaged frescos and books, it is also the story of how a young American girl comes to terms with the slow death of her mother who taught her to love Florence. To top it all the novel purports to be erotic because Margot and Postiglione enjoy ‘performing’ the sixteen sex acts depicted and described in the discovered volume—the “Sixteen Pleasures” of the novel’s title. Only—it lacks any eroticism whatsoever.

So, in essence, we should have a compelling historical novel redolent with the history and art of this beautiful Italian city with a touch of eroticism. Alas, it ended up an unfocused mess. And. given that a male novelist chose to write this novel as a first-person narrative by a young woman strikes me as brave to the point of foolhardiness did not help.