It’s hard for book conservators to find adventure in their professional lives, at least adventures by normal standards. But when the Arno floods in 1966, Margot Harrington finds her chance. The beginning of The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellenga, sees her traveling to Florence on her own dime to help the hundreds of volunteers who arrived to save priceless works of art and clean up the city. The meandering novel tells Margot’s story as she grows through adversity into the person she was always supposed to be—all while doing work that librarians, museum curators, etc. would consider heroic.
Though she sometimes wonders what might have happened if her life had taken other turns, Margot comes to realize that if her mother hadn’t been so fascinated with Italy, she wouldn’t have been in a position to help the other book conservators in Florence after the Arno Flood. Her fluent Italian and in-depth knowledge of book making mean that she’s indispensable (despite what some of the other males in Florence think). After initially working as a translator for an American librarian, Margot leaves to work for a convent with a strict no-men-who-aren’t-priests rule. The unique opportunity brings Margot solace. She’s finally found a place where she feels peaceful and useful.
The Sixteen Pleasures might have ended there, except that two of the nuns discover a copy of Petro Aretino‘s Sonetti lussuriosi. The Sonetti are a series of erotic poems with very explicit illustrations allegedly suppressed by the pope. How they ended up in a convent could be its own novel. The book gives Margot an idea to give the convent an independent income at last and save it from the financial depredations of the Bishop of Florence.
In other hands—like those of Dan Brown—this novel could have turned into a historical thriller, with mysterious and menacing men following our heroine across Europe trying to get the book back. This is not that book. There is some skullduggery around keeping the book out of the bishop’s hands, but The Sixteen Pleasures is much more leisurely than that. The book leads Margot to a life-changing love affair and some important epiphanies about what she wants; there are no secrets that will change history forever.
Some readers (myself included sometimes) may be frustrated by the slow and wandering plot. The book never settled on what I thought it would. Instead, the book kept its focus on Margot’s personal growth. I enjoyed Margot’s company, but I felt like several of the events and characters in the book were lost opportunities. (There was also quite a bit of repetition in the book that bothered me.) The Aretino book sometimes becomes a sideline. Margot falls in love with a man who buckles under pressure and who disappears after their affair ends. The nuns get left behind until almost the very end of the book. This book disappointed me, I’m sad to say, even though it looked like it would be very interesting. After all, how often does one get to read a story about a book conservator who has interesting adventures? Sadly, this novel is not the best example of the premise.