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Review – The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

The Sixteen Pleasures
by Robert Hellenga
369 pages
Fiction
Published 1994

A member of my book group, M.B., recommended The Sixteen Pleasures very highly to me personally. I, in turn, recommended it to our book group (though I hadn’t yet read it). M.B. doesn’t mind re-reading books, especially since this is one of her all time favorites, so it was unanimously agreed upon.

M.B.’s book club unanimously loved this book. My book club felt more meh than love, but I  really enjoyed the book.

This book is about Margot, who scurries off to Florence in 1966 to help save the books that were damaged by the flooding that occurred. She’s young, only 29 years old, but she’s drifting along in life. She’s single, and the few lovers she’s had have been mediocre at best. While in Florence, she meets a man, Alessandro (Sandro, for short), who’s married but in the process of a divorce, which, in Italy would be extremely difficult to get. But Sandro, is an excellent lover, not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of guy…he actually takes time with Margot and eventually she finds herself in love.

While Margot is helping a particular convent with their damaged books, the abbess finds a book bound to a prayer book that has…dirty pictures! But because it’s old and still in good condition (only the cover was ruined from the water), it’s worth a lot of money. At least, that’s what they think. So Margot takes the book to restore the cover so they can sell the book and get money that will ensure the care and welfare of this library that this convent has on their hands, that the cardinal or bishop dude wants to take over. The storyline is really very simple but becomes oh-so-complex!

I feel compelled to tell you this book is in no way, shape, or form, erotica. It’s just based around a book that has sexual drawings.

Themes abound in this book: home, perceptions, love, sex, and identity, just to name a few.

The discussion we had as a book group over this book was the best discussion we’ve ever had. We ALL agreed on that…really, it wasn’t just because I found this book to be one of the deepest and most profound books I’ve read in a long time, and I made sure my group knew that. They all enjoyed the discussion despite my existential monologue(s).

There was a passage that I’ll be typing up and putting in my cubicle, on my fridge, on my computer, because I thought it was so deep and profound…here, let me read it to you:

(The nun is talking about her life before she entered the convent. She and her husband had desparately wanted children but were unable to conceive.)

We had no children. That was a disappointment. Like Sarah — Abraham’s wife. We tried everything, doctors in Milan and in Switzerland, but nothing worked. I had to accept the fact that I was barren. That changed the direction of my life. What I wanted most was denied to me. You come up against something, a roadblock, you’re so sure of the direction you’re going in, the road you want to take, that it’s incoceivable. But a bridge has been washed out. You have to find some other way.

And now look. God has given me these children, my daughters, you see. I could never have foreseen it. Daughters in adundance. That’s what I wanted to say to you. People say that God works in mysterious ways when they really mean that life, or something in their own lives, doesn’t make any sense, but I think that’s wrong. I think it means that we can’t make any sense out of life until we give up our deepest hopes, until we stop trying to arrange everything to suit us. But once we do, or are forced to . . . That’s what’s mysterious.

Isn’t that beautiful? Once we stop trying to make our life what we think it should be, then, THEN we’ll be happy. That’s not to say we can’t try for things, but we shouldn’t try to beat our lives into a mold we have pre-determined. Alexander Graham Bell said it better than I can: “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

On the other hand, I found the writing to be disjointed. I felt like the author was leaving out huge chunks of conversation! Like this: Margot and Sandro are talking about eating out. Margot wants to eat Chinese and Sandro wants to eat Italian (they always eat Italian). This is what the author writes:

“I’m not feeling clever,” he says. “Do you really  want to go to this Chinese restaurant? I’m not sure I’ll survive it. Those plastic replicas of the dishes didn’t look too tempting. And the names: ‘Plum Blossom and Snow Competing for Spring’ . . . What kind of a name is that?”

“You’re so provincial,” she says, “I can’t believe it. Your idea of foreign cooking is something from Naples.”

The restaurant had lots of smooth surfaces that are either red or black, lacquered and shiny. Instead of bread and wine the Chinese waiter – who, much to [Sandro’s] surprise, speaks Italian – brings a pot of tea and two small cups, slightly larger than espresso cups, and thicker.

REALLY? You really want me to believe that the conversation ends with what Margo says and they go trotting off to a Chinese restaurant?? I often found myself jarred by the sudden change in location. The writing seems to lack a fluidity. Not everyone agreed with me on this, but some did.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. This book played especially well to our book group. I even was able to overlook the writing once the story and themes started taking shape.

Rating: 89 out of 100

| Tags: , , , 10 comments »

10 Responses to “Review – The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga”

  1. bermudaonion

    You know it’s a great book when it creates great discussions. I bet it will grow on some of the members of your book group.

    [Reply]

  2. Bookfool, aka Nancy

    That’s an interesting contrast between the two quotes. I agree with you about the sudden drop of conversation. I read something like that, recently, and I had to become accustomed to it — to expect those disjointed moments — in order to relax and enjoy the book. The first quote is really lovely.

    [Reply]

  3. Heather J.

    This sounds really good- thanks for the heads up!

    [Reply]

  4. Amanda

    I’m totally wanting to read this now. Thanks!

    [Reply]

  5. stephanie

    This sounds like a wonderful book!! I haven’t heard of it before, but it’s definitely on my list of books to look for!! Nice review!!

    Loved the first quote, BTW!

    [Reply]

  6. Miriam Parker

    Great review, Trish, if you want to read the sequel to this book, THE ITALIAN LOVER, I can send it to you. Just drop me a line.
    More info: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/books_9780316117630.htm

    [Reply]

  7. Chris@bookarama

    I haven’t heard of this one either but it does sound interesting.

    [Reply]

  8. Lisa

    This was the first book I requested at paperbackswap, sadly, I have not read it yet. Thanks for the review.

    [Reply]

  9. The Sixteen Pleasures, Robert Hellenga « Jenny’s Books

    […] December 29, 2008 by jennysbooks Recommended by: Trish’s blog […]

  10. The Cream of the Crop - The Best Posts, Books, and Comments from 2008 « Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?

    […] The Sixteen Pleasures […]

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