Most Seriously Displeased! Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures

pleasuresI was very restrained in Hager Books on my recent trip to Vancouver: I picked out a modest two books there. One, Gift from the Sea, I chose because I’d heard so much about it. The other, Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures, I chose for the opposite reason: I’d never heard of it at all! That may seem like a risky strategy, and right now, when I reflect on my decision to put Rose Tremain’s Restoration back on the shelf and take The Sixteen Pleasures instead, I feel like an idiot. But I have felt betrayed by buzz often enough not to think that my having heard a lot about a book is any kind of guarantee that I’ll like it (cough cough The Woman Upstairs cough cough), and who doesn’t enjoy discovering a hidden gem? Also, there were four of Hellenga’s novels on the shelf, suggesting that somebody likes them, and not only does The Sixteen Pleasures sound interesting, but one of Hellenga’s other novels is a sequel to it — again, suggesting some kind of success.

Obviously, I’m leading up to some bad news here. I didn’t hate The Sixteen Pleasures, but it gave me very little pleasure. It was mildly interesting, especially the neepery about book binding and art restoration. But the main character’s story is a hodge-podge, her big romance is almost unbelievably dull, and the “sensual life-altering journey” the cover blurb announces that she’s on? I think I missed it.

There were some bits early on in a convent that seemed promising, and the premise — a quest begun by the discovery of a volume of erotic drawings from the Renaissance — also seems full of potential. But here’s what doesn’t happen: “Inspired to sample each of the ineffable sixteen pleasures, Margot embarks on the intrigue of a lifetime with a forbidden lover and the contraband volume.” Doesn’t that description make it sound like a kind of sexy, cerebral Eat, Pray, Love? But though that is the jacket copy, that does not describe the book at all. Margot does in fact experience some of the “pleasures” shown in the drawings. But there’s nothing like a quest to try them out, and they’re handled pretty perfunctorily. Then, nearly 300 pages into the book, Margot does decide that the book is “my handful of magic beans, it was my magic ring, my talisman” and that somehow it will help her figure out who she is and where she’s going. At that point there are 60 pages left and during them she does finally take charge and, I guess, decide who she is. She even has some kind of epiphany – a “mystical experience” – but it’s in the auction room at Sotheby’s and consists of her taking a big risk in order to drive up the price on the book. This is not the “sensual, life-altering journey of loss and rebirth” I was looking for.

If I sound uninspired about it, I really am, and I’m annoyed at having fallen for an unusual premise and some misleading if obviously effective marketing (who was it in the New Yorker that said “everything about the narrator and heroine of this novel is appealing,” anyway? and how dare Kirkus Reviews declare it “absolutely compelling”!). To think I could have been reading more Barbara Pym or Georgette Heyer instead.

7 thoughts on “Most Seriously Displeased! Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures

  1. Robert Hellenga July 31, 2013 / 12:03 pm

    “Everything about the narrator and heroine is appealing right from the first paragraph…. What is amazing here is how intensely you care about everything that happens to this woman, and not just in the obvious matters of love and money: the suspense is so sharp that you find yourself checking ahead to make sure she doesn’t miss a train. Like her, the book is modest, resourceful, and without malice–it is high-minded and fine. So after skipping ahead to slow your heart you go back to read each elegantly moving word.” —The New Yorker


    • Rohan July 31, 2013 / 1:45 pm

      Unfortunately, as Tom says below, this reviewer’s “you” didn’t include me. Sometimes that happens! Not every book is a good fit for every reader, or vice versa.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) July 31, 2013 / 12:23 pm

    See, Rohan, there’s your error. You thought the quote was from someone publishing in the magazine The New Yorker. In fact, the quote comes from a book reviewer who, as unlikely as it seems, is actually named The New Yorker, first name The, middle name New, surname Yorker.

    Mr. T. N, Yorker has an annoying rhetorical habit, doesn’t he? “You you you” – not me, pal. Definitely not me.


  3. Joanna September 21, 2016 / 5:41 am

    I could not disagree more with Rohan Maitzen. The Sixteen Pleasures is one of my favorite novels. Oddly enough, I too bought my first copy in Vancouver. The second one, I found in Florence and re-read it while lying on a grassy bank of the Arno.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 21, 2016 / 12:00 pm

      It all sort of comes out even in the end, doesn’t it? Because I have favorite novels myself that (to my ongoing surprise) other people actively dislike!


  4. Theresa May 5, 2017 / 5:18 pm

    This is also one of my favorite novels ever. I found Margot to be an incredibly sympathetic narrator. The presence, and absence, of her beautiful mother in her life has largely shaped what she has become. She went to Italy for the first time with her mother, and later, she fails to attend Harvard BECAUSE she instead cares for her dying mother. Finally, she throws caution to the wind, and heads to Italy in 1966–at 29– because of the horrible Arno flooding to restore books…even though she is going to lose her job. Hers is a life that “might have been”. Full of wistful longings for …”something” to catch fire in her life. I loved that her romance was a likely one…not with a Christian Grey pervert or some Mr. Darcy clone. He is a rake and a rogue…in the modern and real sense of the words…because he just cannot commit to much of anything. The scenes where her mother’s recorded messages for her family have managed to “disappear” from the tape recorder are some of the most heart rending descriptions of loss I have ever read. Her family…especially her father are wrenchingly moved by the grief of the loss of the mother. I loved the “Mother” of the Convent, Madre Badessa as well…she had lived a full life before heading to the convent. All the women in this novel are fully dimensional people…even the actress who captivated Sandro as a boy so much that he drove her to Rome, stranding himself there…I enjoyed this so much. I hate that ANYONE would compare this to “Eat, Pray, Love” which was much more self-absorbed and lacking in introspection. There is much more humility to Margot as a character than Elizabeth Gilbert…who brags about her “enlightenment” as if entitled to it.


    • Rohan Maitzen May 6, 2017 / 11:01 pm

      Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm! There’s no disputing taste, of course. I read the novel a few years ago now (and, as this post indicates, it did not make a good impression) so its details have not really stuck with me — certainly not well enough for me to engage point by point with the aspects of the novel that you highlight for your praise. It’s worth clarifying, though, that I did not exactly compare it to Eat, Pray, Love: I said that the jacket copy made it sound like “a kind of sexy, cerebral Eat, Pray, Love” — but that the book did not turn out to be like that at all.


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