The Sixteen Pleasures

November 12th, 2008 by Adrian

The department of fifteen-second book reviews was granted a temporary reprieve extending their alloted time slot to well over a full minute. Here’s what they came up with:

As The Sixteen Pleasures opens, Margot Harrington is sharing a train compartment with a pair of American divorcees.  She’s headed for Italy to assist in a massive restoration effort; they’ve embarked on a European vacation to gather “material” in support of their literary aspirations.  We’re treated to a glimpse of their creative process in action:

“Did you get the man with the pipe?”
“Got him.”
“The sheep?”
“What sheep?  I didn’t see any sheep.”
“Hah!  How about the announcement on the PA system?  Did you get that?”
“Pardonnay something-or-other, that’s all I got.  How about you?” 

The conversation then shifts to reflect on their workshop instructor’s sexual appetite (they’ve both appeared on the menu), and eventually they share the prosaic yet deeply personal childhood memories around which they hope to craft meaningful stories.   We’re invited to smile condescendingly at the bourgeois naïveté that leads them to mistake accuracy for truth, knowing that their earnest attention to detail will not by itself imbue the mundane with a sense of artistic profundity.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have taken his own object lesson to heart.  The Sixteen Pleasures is a light coming-of-age of story in which the 29-year old narrator rediscovers and redefines herself through her adventures abroad.  It’s Fear of Flying, but filtered through the soft-focus lens of Eat, Pray, Love.  Interesting and detailed nuggets of information pop up almost every other page:  methods of manual book-binding, the chemistry of 15th century frescoes, and foibles of marital politics in modern Italy are all stitched together to provide a lovely backdrop for the narrator’s journey of self-discovery.

As pleasant as this backdrop is, there’s very little to care about in the foreground. Margot falls in love, suffers heartbreak, heals, achieves a professional success and makes peace with her past…  none of which is particularly dramatic.  Margot is borne through these events by a gentle, twisting current of narrative.  We bob along with her, observing everything that happens with an idle curiosity, but never any sense of tension or concern.   In the end, the ride is unremarkable.

If Margot were real, it’s easy to see how this story would be a compelling one, for her – it’s her life, after all.  But the author’s challenge is to craft a story that feels both true and immediately meaningful for us.  Like the ladies on the train, Hellenga succeeds in faithfully imparting what happens without convincing us that we should really concern ourselves with why it happens at all.

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