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by Robert Hellenga

Pub Date: May 11th, 1994
ISBN: 1-56947-006-5
Publisher: Soho

 A wonderfully rich and absorbing story that seems far too assured to be a first novel. Hellenga forms Florentine art, nuns, erotica, and American know-how into a kind of della Robbia arrangement of juicy forbidden fruit. It is the fall of 1966. Florence has been devastated by floods. Margot Harrington, a book conservator from Illinois, joins the crowd of volunteers who descend upon the city to help rescue its art treasures. Margot's training puts her a notch above the ``mud angels,'' the unskilled student volunteers who wade into the murky basements of museums and cathedrals. But, as a woman, Margot is not quite accepted among the self-important ranks of male conservators. Forced to find her own way, Margot ends up working in the waterlogged library of a convent, falling in love with an older, married man and also coming, clandestinely, into possession of an extremely rare book, The Sixteen Pleasures, a volume of exquisite erotic drawings and sonnets from the 16th century. After some slightly awkward and unconvincing train-ride scenes at the beginning of the novel, there's not a false note here. Hellenga knows just how to build a story. The suspense he manages to create in a book auction scene rivals that of any thriller. In the course of mending books in Florence, Margot Harrington is releasing herself from the rigid bindings of her old life, and both processes prove to be absolutely compelling.