'Italian Lover' a good read in spite of an overcrowded plot

Posted: Friday, September 28, 2007

"The Italian Lover" (Little, Brown & Co., 340 pages, $23.99), by Robert Hellenga: This is the sequel to the tantalizing historical novel about a bashful Midwesterner who moves to Italy, falls in love and loses her inhibitions.

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"The Italian Lover" is nearly as much fun to read as the first book, "The Sixteen Pleasures." In both, Hellenga develops rich characters and vividly portrays Italian life through the eyes of an American expatriate.

In the first book, 29-year-old book conservator Margot Harrington leaves Chicago to become a "mud angel" - a foreigner who goes to Florence in 1966 to rescue medieval treasures after the Arno River floods.

As Margot repairs water-logged books at a convent, the mother abbess slips her the only remaining copy of a scandalous book and asks her to discreetly dispose of it. The volume - which the pope ordered destroyed in the 16th century - includes bawdy sonnets by Renaissance writer Pietro Aretino and 16 erotic prints by Giuliano Romano, a student of Raphael.

The pornographic prayer book inspires bedroom adventures of Margot and her married lover, Sandro Postiglione. (Hellenga's treatment of sex is explicit but relatively tasteful. If they were movies, both books would be rated R, not X.)

Margot restores and auctions the book - "Europe's answer to the Karma Sutra" - for a minor fortune. Although the 50-something Sandro returns to his Roman wife (naturally), Margot stays in Florence. She spends her 30s feasting on Tuscan bread and drinking wine, and dating men who don't measure up to the wildly romantic, hilarious and disheveled Sandro.

The sequel picks up when Margot hits her 40s, maybe early 50s - beautiful but slightly weathered. She enjoys worldwide fame as a rare book preserver and remains unattached romantically.

In the opening pages, she finally meets a rival to the memory of Sandro - a rugged-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside American known as "Illinois Woody." Woody quotes Tolstoy and teaches Greek literature at the American Academy of Florence.

At the same time, Hollywood filmmaker Esther Klein plans to turn Margot's Florence exploits into a movie, commissioning Margot and Woody to write the screenplay. Esther envisions Meg Ryan as Margot.

But Esther has a shoestring budget; the obscure prude who plays Margot bursts into tears in the first nude scene. Esther steamrolls the script into a cheesy coming-of-age flick whose lead characters live happily ever after.

Although a book about a movie about a book seems convoluted, Hellenga's rollicking sequel is fast-paced and digestible. The only quibble is that it packs in too many complex characters, sometimes resulting in reader whiplash.

Without "War and Peace" length, it's impossible to fully develop so many characters and story lines. That leaves some subplots and characters - particularly Zanni Cipriani, the zesty actor who plays Sandro - to seem half baked.

But perhaps everyone in the novel simply pales in comparison to Margot. Despite her secondary role in the movie, she remains the lovable protagonist of "The Italian Lover." People who loved "Sixteen Pleasures" should consider the sequel a must-read.



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