The Italian Lover
Robert Hellenga
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Buy *The Italian Lover* by Robert Hellenga online

The Italian Lover
Robert Hellenga
Back Bay Books
368 pages
February 2009
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Italian Lover.

Just as John Berendt made the city of Savannah an integral character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Robert Hellenga lovingly depicts Florence (and a few other parts of Italy) in The Italian Lover. This entertaining book gives readers a look at Florence’s historic sites, famous piazzas, enviable art and mouth-watering food, as well as its inhabitants and true culture.

An engaging author, Hellenga presents a story that, like real life, takes unpredictable yet believable twists and turns. Basically this is a novel about Margot Harrington’s autobiographical book The Sixteen Pleasures (an actual Hellenga novel) being transformed into a film. On another level, The Italian Lover illustrates how art influences our daily lives, how cultural differences affect philosophies of life and love, and how memories impact our daily decisions and how and where we choose to live our lives. One Hellenga character reflects that in Italy, “…human nature can be accommodated more easily than in the United States.”

Hellenga gives readers six protagonists, all fully realized main characters, whose lives are reaching a cathartic moment:

  • Margot, a talented book conservationist, is the fictional author of the original manuscript for the movie, which describes her finding of a rare volume of Aretino erotic poetry with accompanying graphic illustrations. Also relating her first love affair with a married Italian man, Margot’s volume is a coming-of-age tale that dramatically affected the lives of many readers. In The Italian Lover, we find Margot slightly homesick, struggling with the idea of whether a foreign place, even one as beloved and spectacular as Florence, can indeed become your true home.
  • Woody, a sometimes blues guitarist and dog-rescuing Latin and Greek professor from the Midwest who lost a daughter in the Bologna subway bombing, also struggles with the decision of returning to the States since he feels that in Italy “…he couldn’t seem to get things - things like the bidet - quite right.”
  • Esther Klein, a “tough old broad” experiencing the aftermath of a painful divorce, is the film producer who changes Margot’s story in loving hopes of a happy ending.
  • Michael is the “middling” director dying of cancer determined to shoot one last film and hopefully fulfill the promise of his very first film shot so many years ago.
  • Beryl, Michael’s wife, who can’t understand his need to direct one more film, learns about herself and the true nature of her love for Michael while in Italy.
  • Miranda, the star of the film, is still trying to find her place in the world. Deeply impacted by The Sixteen Pleasures, she craves Margot’s strength and finds Margot “someone who was more real to her than the self she could see.”
Enriching the story and key to many scenes are ties to literature, music and art, such as Hellenga’s favorite novel, Anna Karenina. Woody recommends the classic to Miranda, who refers to various scenes and characters as she progresses through the work. Another signature Hellenga touch is his repeated references to expensive fountain pens. The author is adept at employing these little touches to personalize characters and further layer meaning in his work. A minor character named Zanni, the male lead of the movie, embodies Hellenga’s ode to gracious Italian living: “…he enjoys being who he is….He’s got the secret of life.”

While many of Hellenga’s novels are intertwined due to revisited characters, each novel stands strong independently. While Margot was introduced in The Sixteen Pleasures, readers of The Italian Lover can also appreciate her story. Margot’s father figures prominently in Hellenga’s Philosophy Made Simple. Woody is again a main character in The Fall of a Sparrow. It is comforting to know we can get more of the Harringtons and the Woodhulls when we need them. With the ending of The Italian Lover, Hellenga leaves plenty of storylines open for future visits with these enjoyable characters.

Hellenga has a Ph.D. in English from Princeton and is the George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, six Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowships, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award.

Not surprisingly, Hellenga has experience with the film industry since The Sixteen Pleasures really has been optioned for a movie. Let’s hope that The Italian Lover also comes to a theatre near us soon.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Leslie Raith, 2009

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