Daily Archives: September 2, 2009

Review: Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts: A Novel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I don’t read very much historical fiction, and I’m not sure why this one caught my eye, but I’m glad it did.

From the Random House web site:

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.

Sacred Hearts drew me in to a different place and time. It gave me interesting characters, a compelling storyline and drew an extremely rich picture for me.

I liked the contrasts between the two main characters– I didn’t identify with Serafina at all (which didn’t make her any less interesting of a character), but Suora Zuana really spoke to me. She was a  clearly brilliant woman, who made a home for herself where she could advance her science, even when there is no place for her in the society of the day.  She made the best of the life she had, making an effort to help others.

There were a number of interesting side characters. I particularly was drawn to the views the different nuns had of what was right, and what behavior was justified as a means to that end. Most of the women really believed they were doing God’s will, but some of the things they did appeared to me (and others in the book) as quite reprehensible.

By the end, I was very much enjoying the plotting of a complicated scheme, and watching it unfold.

The writing was wonderful.

When I mentioned that I was starting Sacred Hearts, several people warned me that it started slowly, but once you got past the beginning, the rest of the book was didn’t lose their interest. I had a different experience– I was drawn into the world immediately, but I felt the story bogged down in the middle. However, once it started moving for me again, it really went, and I didn’t slow down again.

This book would have wonderful possibilities for a book club discussion.  I’ll strongly consider suggesting this book (or another of Sarah Dunant’s books) for my book clubs.   Since I do make an effort to balance my reading, I will put her other books on my personal list, for next time I want to pick up another historical novel.

Thank you to Random House for providing this book to me for review.


Posted by on September 2, 2009 in books, reviews


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