Hellenga and his Women

Galesburg Main Street
Source: David Wilson, Flickr.

I picked up The Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga not entirely sure what to expect, but I thought a book in which a woman has conversations with God had to be at least somewhat interesting. I liked it even more than I thought I would. Frances does indeed talk to God (and He answers her back, in Latin no less), but even that may not be the most interesting part of this engrossing book. Frances Godwin has led a fairly quiet life, punctuated by trips to Italy and a torrid affair that led to a child and then her marriage. Forced to retire from her job teaching Latin by school budget cuts and with her husband dead and her daughter married, Frances figures nothing much will ever happen to her again. How wrong she is. She falls in love with her son-in-law's uncle, shoots the said son-in-law, and sells a rare and very valuable car. This may sound like a small story, but Frances is a very reflective person, and her reflections add depth and breadth to this tale. Also, the imagery is fantastic, whether speaking of unspoken facts as large pieces of furniture with sheets on them or the metaphor of finding out where someone hopping a train was going, they are haunting and apt. On display are Hallenga's deep affinity for women, his love of Classical literature and places, his mastery of life in the Midwest (particularly Illinois), and his reflective, elegiac tone.

In The Sixteen Pleasures, Margot, a young book conservator, travels to Florence to help the cultural institutions there recover from a terrible flood. She dives into an affair with a married art historian and becomes involved in the restoration of a convent library. The title of the book comes from that of a very rare Renaissance work of erotica found bound with a prayer book in that library. The Mother Superior wants Margot to sell the book discretely in order to save the library from a venal bishop.

In The Fall of A Sparrow, Woody Woodhull's family has fallen apart: his eldest daughter has been killed in a terrorist bombing in Italy, his wife has joined a convent, another daughter has gone to Chicago to find work and taken up with a married coworker, and he's just been canned from teaching Latin and Greek at a small Midwestern college for having an affair with a student. Woody decides to go to Italy to observe the trial of his daughter's killers and strikes up a friendship with one of the terrorists' fathers. Once again, Italy, the Midwest, art and the tension between justice and mercy are featured.

Philosophy Made Simple Follows Rudy, the father of Margot from The Sixteen Pleasures. With an empty nest, he sells the family home and buys an avocado farm in the wilds of Texas. He starts reading a book by a soon-to-be in-law, Philosophy Made Simple, and planning his daughter's wedding. Rudy also falls in love with another in-law-to-be and develops relationships with a priest with no congregation and an elephant with a talent for painting. Throw in a pair of Christian radio hosts forecasting the Second Coming to be really soon, and the stage is set for a lighthearted voyage through the big questions.

Hellenga seems to be out to prove it is a small world after all in The Italian Lover. Margot makes her third appearance in a novel, and Woody (The Fall of a Sparrow) makes his sophomore run. Hollywood has taken notice of Margot's experience from The Sixteen Pleasures and as lovers Margot and Woody try to write something palatable and yet having at least a vague resemblance to the truth, egos and the vagaries of filmmaking on location are set to surge. Florence itself gets center stage in this ode to the spirit of the Renaissance.

Sunny and Jackson fall into and eventually beyond each other in Snakewoman of Little Egypt. Sunny has just served five years for wounding her husband, pastor of a snake handling church, after he forced her to put her arm in a box of rattlesnakes. Sunny's time was not wasted: she got an education in prison and is now attending the college at which Jackson teaches anthropology. As Sunny hoovers up every piece of knowledge the college has for her, Jackson becomes professionally interested in the hyper-religious life she left behind, even befriending Sunny's  violent husband. Eventually, all good things must come to an end, but there is redemption here, as well as melancholy.