Title: Sacred Hearts
Author: Sarah Dunant
Release Date: July 14, 2009
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
From the publisher’s website:
The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God’s protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina’s new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.
Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant–young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl’s cell to sedate her. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, for whom the girl becomes the daughter she will never have.
As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena–with her history of visions and ecstasies–locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. As disorder and rebellion mount, it is the abbess’s job to keep the convent stable while, outside its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to purge the Catholic Church and impose on the nunneries a regime of terrible oppression.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant was one of the first historical fiction books I read, and I absolutely loved it. It really got me interested in the genre and it continues to be one of my favorite books, for nostalgic purposes and because it’s well-written and completely captivating. Though I couldn’t get into In the Company of the Courtesan, I was really looking forward to Sacred Hearts and jumped at the chance to review it.
The pace of Sacred Hearts is different than Dunant’s other books; in a word, it is slow. At the beginning, it was difficult to get into. However, after I stuck with it, I began to appreciate the languorous pace of the novel and became completely captivated by it. In some ways, it is claustrophobic, much like being in a convent. The fact that Dunant manages to convey emotion simply through the pace of her novel and her language is a really impressive feat.
The characters are what make Sacred Hearts worth reading. I really loved Suora Zuana; she was definitely my favorite character in the novel. She was level-headed, smart, and easy to get attached to. Sometimes I got tired of Serafina’s hysterical theatrics, but she really grew on me as the novel progressed. I also appreciated the abbess’ shrewdness and ability to understand and deconstruct the political situation of the times that they were living in. Dunant manages to make this book about the people living within the convent, yet through them, and especially Suora Umiliana, she also shows us what was going outside the convent walls and how politics was affecting the lives of the nuns. It is very subtly done and shows a skilled writer at work.
I also loved the depiction of convent life. As I mentioned before, the atmosphere of the book is close and slightly claustrophobic, yet there is a lot of beauty within Sacred Hearts. Suora Zuana actually found a lot of freedom within the walls of the convent. It’s interesting to see how the different women take advantage of life as nuns, especially considering many of them didn’t want to be there in the first place.
As you can tell, I really loved Sacred Hearts. I really thought it was a brilliantly written book. Dunant takes so much care with the details of the time period and her ability to write sympathetic characters that evoke emotion from the reader is impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it!
Thank you to the publisher for sending me this book to review.