||In 1966, 29-year-old Margot Harrington heads off to Florence, intent on doing her bit to protect its precious books from the great floods--and equally intent on adventure. Serendipity, in the shape of the man she'll fall in love with, leads her to an abbey run by the most knowing of abbesses and work on its library begins. One day a nun comes upon a shockingly pornographic volume, bound with a prayer book. It turns out to be Aretino's lost erotic sonnets, accompanied by some rather anatomical engravings. Since the pope had ordered all copies of the Sixteen Pleasures burned, it could be worth a fortune and keep the convent autonomous. The abbess asks Margot to take care of the book and check into its worth: "We have to be cunning as serpents and innocent as doves," she warns.
Soon our heroine finds her identity increasingly "tangled up" with the volume and with Dottor Postiglione, a man with an instinct for happiness--but also one for self-preservation. Margot enjoys the secrecy and the craft (the chapters in which she rebinds the folios are among the book's finest). Much of the book's pleasure stems from Robert Hellenga's easy knowledge, which extends to Italian complexities. Where else would you learn that, in cases of impotence, legal depositions are insufficient: "Modern couples often take the precaution of sending postcards to each other from the time of their engagement, leaving the message space blank so that it can be filled in later if the couple wishes to establish grounds for an annulment." Luckily, however, there are also shops that sell old postcards, "along with the appropriate writing instruments and inks."
Though The Sixteen Pleasures is initially in the tradition of American innocent goes abroad to encounter European experience, Hellenga's depth (and lightness) of characterization and description lift it high above its genre. And what better book than one about loving and loving books?