Hellenga, Robert 1941–

views updated

Hellenga, Robert 1941–


Born August 5, 1941, in Milwaukee, WI; son of Ted (a produce broker) and Marjorie (a Latin teacher) Hellenga; married Virginia Killion (a Latin teacher), in August, 1963; children: Rachel Hellenga Farr, Heather, Caitrine. Education: University of Michigan, B.A. (with high honors), 1963; Princeton University, Ph.D., 1969; attended University of Belfast and University of North Carolina. Hobbies and other interests: Blues guitar (acoustic), cooking.


Office—Robert Hellenga, Knox College, 2 E. South St., Galesburg, IL 61401. Agent—Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson and Lerner, Literary Agency, 27 W. 20th St., Ste. 1107, New York, NY 10011; fax: 212-645-7614. E-mail—[email protected].


Educator and writer. Knox College, Galesburg, IL, 1968-76, began as assistant professor, became associate professor, George Appleton Lawrence Distin- guished Service Professor of English, then George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, 1976—; Newberry Library Seminar in Humanities, faculty fellow, 1973-74; ACM Florence Programs, director, 1981-82.


Phi Kappa Phi, Phi Beta Kappa.


Exchange Fellowship, The Queen's University of Belfast, 1963-64; Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, University of North Carolina, 1964-65; National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Title IV Fellowship, Princeton University, 1965-68; National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in Residence, University of Chicago, 1975-76; PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1989; Society of Midland Author Award for Fiction, 1995, for The Sixteen Pleasures; six awards from the Illinois Arts Council, including Illinois Arts Council Finalist Award, 2001, 2006.


The Sixteen Pleasures, Soho (New York, NY), 1994.

The Fall of a Sparrow, Scribner (New York, NY), 1998.

Blues Lessons: A Novel, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.

Philosophy Made Simple: A Novel, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2006.

The Italian Lover: A Novel, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to books, including The Writer's Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and their Journals, edited by Sheila Bender, Dell, 1997; Travelers' Tales Guides: Italy: True Stories of Life on the Road, edited by Anne Calcagno. Travelers' Tales Inc., 1998; and In the Middle of the Middle West, edited by Becky Bradway, Indiana University Press, 2003. Contributor of scholarly articles, essays, and fiction to periodicals, including College English, New Literary History, Iowa Review, Mississippi Valley Review, Chicago Review, California Quarterly, Columbia, Ascent, Crazyhorse, TriQuarterly, New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune Magazine, and Forum for Modern Language Studies.


Film rights for The Sixteen Pleasures have been optioned by Bernadette Anderson.


In November 1966, the Arno flood descended on Florence, Italy, destroying or threatening to destroy the city's invaluable artworks, historic buildings, and antiquities. The international community quickly rallied around the devastated region, and art and book restorers from all over the world arrived to help repair the damage. In Robert Hellenga's first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, among the would-be rescuers is Margot Harrington, an intelligent yet naive young heroine. Anne Whitehouse, writing in Tribune Books, praised The Sixteen Pleasures as having "a sympathetic heroine, a suspenseful plot, a cast of colorful characters and illuminating meditations on life, art and love."

Margot leaves her job as a book restorer in Chicago in response to the call to help save Florence's rare books—and to save herself from the vaguely dissatisfying life she has been leading. Upon her arrival, she is assigned to a convent and given charge of "The Sixteen Pleasures," a sixteenth-century erotic manuscript bound into a book of prayers. The convent's abbess asks Margot to repair and then sell the manuscript in the hope that it will bring in sufficient funds to support the remaining collection, a gift from an aristocratic nun in the eighteenth century. Margot meets the abbess's cousin and begins to trust the middle-aged Italian, against the nun's advice, with her heart as well as the manuscript given into her care. The resulting novel is "part Bildungsroman, part mystery, part romance, part guidebook," wrote Mark Mitchell in the New York Times Book Review.

Like his protagonist, Hellenga has lived in Florence, and the intimate knowledge of the place he gained, in addition to his expertise as a humanities scholar, provides the book with a solid foundation in fact that some critics noted as a highlight of the novel. Phoebe-Lou Adams, writing in the Atlantic, praised Hellenga's ability to generate an "astounding" degree of suspense in a plot centered around the austere activity of antique book restoration. Others pinpointed the strength of the novel in the intrinsic interest of Margot Harrington. "Everything about the narrator and heroine of this novel is appealing right from the first paragraph," wrote a contributor to the New Yorker. On the other hand, Susan Salter Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times Book Review found that "Margot in love has a very strange, detached equanimity, … which one sees now and then in female characters drawn by men."

In addition, several critics commented on Hellenga's skillful rendering of a coming-of-age story within the confines of a suspense plot. According to WashingtonPost Book World contributor Charlotte Innes, though The Sixteen Pleasures shares with the best nineteenth-century novels the characteristic of being "enjoyably wide-ranging," Hellenga's effort attempts too much in too little space, with the result that "the characters' musings, though intelligent, don't go very deep." Tribune Books contributor Anne Whitehouse, however, commented: "The Mother Abbess, who serves as a kind of fairy godmother to Margot, tells her, ‘We can't make any sense out of life until we give up our deepest hopes.’ The Sixteen Pleasures is both a fascinating entertainment and a penetrating depiction of this philosophy."

In Blues Lessons: A Novel, Hellenga tells the coming-of-age story of Martin Dijksterhuis. Martin is a high school student in rural Michigan in the 1960s when he falls in love with Cory Williams, a black girl whose father works in the local orchards. When Cory becomes pregnant, Martin wants to do his duty, marry her, and go to work in the orchards. Martin's mother, however, has bigger plans for her son, who she wants to go to college. She pays Cory's family to leave town, and Martin joins the navy when he learns of his mother's behind-the-scenes dealings. As the years pass, Martin follows his longing to become a blues musician. He also tracks down Cory and discovers that he is the father of a young daughter named Cozy. Calling the novel "heartfelt" and "provocative," a Publishers Weekly contributor added: "This is a quietly graceful novel with a complex story and a multifaceted cast of characters."

Returning to the Harrington family from his earlier novel The Sixteen Pleasures, Hellenga focuses on the retired widower Rudy Harrington in Philosophy Made Simple: A Novel. Rudy is pondering what to do with his life after his three daughters have left the family home. A former avocado seller in Chicago, Rudy is reading a book titled Philosophy Made Simple when he decides to buy an avocado farm in Texas, which he hopes will in some way help him to make sense of life. Once in Texas, Rudy encounters a wide assortment of characters, from an Indian wise man to an elephant that is an abstract painter and just might be an incarnation of the Indian elephant god Lord Ganesh. "There's nothing whimsical about this solidly grounded fiction, which enchantingly explores the space between philosophical concepts and our hapless floundering in life's challenges," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Susanne Wells, writing in the Library Journal, commented that "here is a novel about life and love told in the voice of a man of experience."

In his next novel, The Italian Lover: A Novel, Hellenga brings back Margot Harrington in a story about the making of a movie from her memoir The Sixteen Pleasures. Writing on the Bookreporter.com Web site, Kate Ayers referred to the novel as "cleverly written as a sequel, yet a fine stand-alone novel."

In the novel, Margot is now fifty-three years old and is involved in the making of a movie about her time in Florence working on the Renaissance erotica tale along with her misguided love affair in 1966 when she was twenty-nine years old. This time, Margot has a new lover named Woody, a historian who teaches at the American Academy of Florence and who also plays guitar at a local club. The initial script for the film was written by Margot and Woody, and Margot believes that the story validates her life. However, when filming for the movie begins at the convent, Margot finds herself in a new drama as the story has been transformed by other scriptwriters. As the novel progresses, Margot's ideas of home, art, love, and aging collide with the necessities of commerce and the mysteries of other cultures and people, including Miranda Clark, who is starring as Margo, and Beryl Gardiner, the director's wife.

"Hellenga is a man possessed of endless curiosity, like a really smart kid poking around in matters of interest," wrote Valerie Ryan in a review of The Italian Lover in the Seattle Times. "Then he puts it all together in yet another transformative tale that sorts out his characters' wants and needs and vagaries." In a similar take on the novel, Booklist contributor Bill Ott noted that the author "masterfully keeps all the stories afloat with one feeding the other like themes in a fugue," adding that "the novel is a life-affirming ode."



Atlantic, June, 1994, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 137.

Booklist, September 15, 2007, Bill Ott, review of The Italian Lover: A Novel, p. 33.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2001, review of Blues Lessons: A Novel, p. 1632; December 15, 2005, review of Philosophy Made Simple: A Novel, p. 1292; July 15, 2007, review of The Italian Lover.

Library Journal, February 1, 2006, Susanne Wells, review of Philosophy Made Simple, p. 71; August 1, 2007, Leigh Anne Vrabel, review of The Italian Lover, p. 68.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 12, 1994, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 6.

New Yorker, August 1, 1994, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 81.

New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1994, Mark Mitchell, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 18; June 25, 1995, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 32; April 23, 2006, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, review of Philosophy Made Simple.

Publishers Weekly, December 17, 2001, review of Blues Lessons, p. 64; June 11, 2007, review of The Italian Lover, p. 35.

Seattle Times, October 5, 2007, Valerie Ryan, "The Italian Lover Is Populated with People We Already Know."

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 19, 1994, Anne Whitehouse, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 7; March 12, 2006, Alan Cheuse, review of Philosophy Made Simple.

Washington Post Book World, July 31, 1994, Charlotte Innes, review of The Sixteen Pleasures, p. 7.


BookLoons, http://www.bookloons.com/ (May 7, 2008), Mary Ann Smyth, review of The Italian Lover.

Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (May 7, 2008), Kate Ayers, review of The Italian Lover.

Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (May 7, 2008), Michael Leonard, review of The Italian Lover.

Knox College Web site, http://www.knox.edu/ (May 7, 2008), faculty profile of author.