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Culture Watch



by Robert Hellenga, ©2007

Published by Little, Brown & Co.; hardcover, 352 pp

This little book by Robert Hellenga is fun to read. Set in Florence, it introduces us to a large cast of Americans who are in Italy to make a movie based on a book by Margot Harrington, a young American book conservator/restorer, about her discovery of a unique copy of Renaissance erotic drawings, Pietro Aretino’s I Modi. Margot found the drawings in a convent where she was working in 1966, when she had come to Florence to help out after the great flood, which damaged much of the city, and left many books in need of repair.

Margot never left Florence, having fallen soundly in love both with Italy and, sequentially, with various men. At the time of this story, she is 54 years old, an ex-pat who has her home and studio in Florence. Her book was originally optioned by Hollywood, but the movie never – until now – actually made it to production.

In comic novels, the characters are often just stereotypes, but Hellenga manages to give them a bit more dimension than one might expect. In addition to Margot, we find:

Margot’s current amour, Alan “Illinois Woody” Woodhull, a teacher of classics at the American Academy who is also a blues guitarist in a local club;

Esther Klein, the producer, trying to get over her divorce from her longtime husband and producing partner, Harry, by making a quality film on her own;

Miranda Clark, young actress who earnestly studies Margot, whom she will portray in the film;

Zanni, leading man extraordinaire, exuding sexy energy;

Michael, a middle-of-the-pack director who is dying of cancer, and his wife, Beryl, dedicated to the quality of Michael’s life, but unable to resist Zanni’s appeal;

And a long cast of assorted characters, including an Orthodox Rabbi, the police, a young dolley grip who is more than he seems, and an abused dog named Biscotti that Woody rescues with considerable consequences.

All in all, this is a light, funny little book. Hollywood in Florence is in itself an amusing concept. Guess who comes out on top.


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