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Sacred Hearts – Book Review

Oh, sweet, sweet Jesus, is this how it will be? Day after day after day, is this how it will be? Because if it is, then surely she will die here. There has not been a second when she has not been prodded by or spied on by somebody, starting from the moment they shook her awake that morning, and she had felt so sick and dizzy she could barely focus, her head filled with tumbling nightmares, and she had opened her eyes onto this fat bearded woman’s face, thrusting itself into hers, telling her to thank the Lord for bringing her safely through the night, and glory be to Him for this, her first day in Santa Caterina. – from Sacred Hearts, page 36 of the ARC –

Sixteenth century Italy was a time in history when young women found themselves being forced into convent life against their will. The price of wedding dowries was so high that Italian aristocratic families could choose only one daughter to be married off – any other daughters in the family were sent to convents where the cost to marry them to Christ was affordable. By the turn of the century (1600’s), the Roman Catholic Church pushed through a counter-reformation movement through cruelly restrictive measures instituted at the convents across Italy – including walling up windows, redesigning churches so that the nuns were hidden from the congregation, ending family visitations, and the confiscation of personal items such as furniture and books.

Sarah Dunant’s latest novel is set amid this tumultuous time and is a glimpse into convent life through the eyes of a sixteen year old girl and an older nun who has spent most of her life imprisoned behind the convent walls of Santa Caterina.

Suora Zuana is forced to become a nun when her father, a well-known doctor, dies. At the opening of Sacred Hearts, she has lived more than sixteen years beneath the veil and has established herself as the dispensary mistress. She is a good nun, but her heart belongs to the science of healing. Her joy is found within the infirmary walls where she researches the herbs and remedies from her father’s massive tomes, and brings healing to the sisters of the convent. So when Serafina, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Italian aristocrat, arrives at Santa Caterina screaming out her protests, Zuana empathizes with the girl and seeks to help her adjust to the isolated life of a nun.

Sacred Hearts is narrated from the alternating viewpoints of Zuana and Serafina. It explores convent politics, including the shifting balance of power…and examines the complex relationships between the sisters which include both trust and betrayal. Serafina’s high spirit and willful personality are challenged at every turn, especially when she hatches an escape plan to be reunited with her lover outside the walls of Santa Caterina.

Dunant brings to life the beauty and the horror of convent life in this historical novel.She examines the ambivalence which women felt when faced with the isolated existence of a spiritual life.

Oh, but there is beauty in here, too, Zuana thinks: the richness of the earth, the warmth of the bricks, the coolness of the stone. Beauty, space, and, once you stop wanting it to be different, peace, a relief from the madness outside. If someone were to open the doors now, what point would there be in walking out into the world? Where would she go? Who would she be? The house where a young woman called Faustina grew up is home to another family now, while the city that surrounds it is a maelstrom of people who neither know nor care about her. That infinitesimal space in the world that was once hers has long since disappeared – and to appreciate quiet one must accept less excitement. – from Sacred Hearts, page 223 of the ARC –

I found the contrast – as well as the similarities – of the main characters compelling and fascinating. Dunant’s decision to write her novel from the point of view of both a young girl entering the convent against her will, and that of an older nun who also rebelled at being forced into convent life, but now had come to accept it…creates the tension in the novel.

And yet, and yet…this young woman with her sense of fury and injustice has somehow infiltrated Zuana’s life. That Zuana likes her is undeniable, despite her spirit and her truculence – or perhaps because of them. No doubt she sees something of herself in her; the curiosity as well as the determination. And it is true that had she married, had she become a wife instead of a nun, her own child might indeed now be Serafina’s age. How would she feel about her then? It is a painful question. While Santa Caterina has been a good home to her, would she choose to give a daughter up to such a life? And if not, does that mean she is willing to risk bringing down the convent to help her? – from Sacred Hearts, page 340 of the ARC –

Although the first part of the book was a bit slow, it was necessary to introduce the characters who would later play a deciding role in the outcome. Once I reached the mid-way point of the novel, I found it impossible to put down. Dunant successfully ramps up the drama and conflict and ends her story with a bang.

I read this book for both the Women Unbound and The Social Justice challenges – and it was perfect for both. This is a book about women’s rights (or the lack of them) – women who had no power and whose lives were carved out by their fathers. Women in the sixteenth century were bought and sold by men and rarely had a say in their futures. It is also a novel which touches on religious freedom. Women forced into convent life were expected to accept their fate and devote their lives to God – they became brides of Christ and had to give up any dreams of children or a mortal husband. Girls like Serafina had no religious freedom – and if they protested or attempted escape, the consequences were often dire.

Readers who are interested in historical fiction which center around women’s rights and freedoms, will find Sacred Hearts a fascinating read. Full of beautiful imagery, drama and church politics, this is a novel I can recommend.

FTC Disclosure: I received this ARC from the publisher for review.

17 Comments

  1. January 22, 2010    

    I didn’t like this book quite as much but I still appreciated the message you are talking about as well. It’s always interesting to read about women’s lives and how difficult it must have been for them to be punished for the sins they didn’t even commit.

  2. January 22, 2010    

    I reviewed this book just yesterday on my blog (although I have to say that your review is far superior than mine, which is probably why you received an ARC and I got my copy from the library!).

    I enjoyed this book as well. I think some people who have read Dunant’s earlier historical novels might not like it quite as much as it is quite different from those two. However, in some ways I found it more powerful.

  3. January 22, 2010    

    SNAP! Another exact match! I read this last week and enjoyed it as much as you did. I felt the book was a bit long and slow in places, but overall it was very good. I’m pleased to see we’re still matching up on our book tastes!

  4. January 22, 2010    

    This book does sound fascinating to me! I’ll have to remember that it starts out slowly.

  5. January 22, 2010    

    This book sounds interesting, and I’m also participating in the Women Unbound challenge and need books to fill it. I’ve seen this book around, but never really thought about reading it until you’re review. Thanks.

  6. January 22, 2010    

    I have this as one of my Friday Finds this week. I thought it looked fabulous and now you have confirmed it.

  7. January 22, 2010    

    I came to read your review because of the Social Justice Challenge on Religious Freedom. I’m moved by this tale of no freedom at all, religious or otherwise. It’s so hard to imagine an entire life spent in a place where you don’t want to be. It sounds as if the author did a good job of conveying all this to her 21st century readers. Thanks for a beautifully written book review.

  8. January 22, 2010    

    This sounds really interesting … and it makes me appreciate that I live now and not then! I think my mom would like this book too. Maybe I can convince her to buy it and then send it to me.

  9. January 22, 2010    

    Wendy,
    Another wonderful review! This book sounds like something I would really like. I hope to find it at my local library.
    I love the picture of your kitten up against the wall. Where did you find it?

  10. January 24, 2010    

    This sounds like an excellent book for my f2f book club. I’ll have to remember, though, to tell them it starts off slowly.

  11. January 27, 2010    

    Lilly: Sorry the book didn’t resonate for you as it did me…but I agree that reading about women’s lives in another time is interesting.

    Melinda: You do yourself a disservice – your review was terrific!!! Thanks for sharing it 🙂

    Jackie: *laughs* Glad we’re continuing to parallel each others likes and dislikes 🙂

    Kathy: *nods* I think most of the negatives I’ve read about this book is its slow start…but if you hang in there, I think you’ll find it worth it.

    Jules: this is a good one for Women Unbound…I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

    Vivienne: Hope you’ll enjoy it too!

    Margot: I agree – it is so sad to think of young women being stripped of their freedoms…and Dunant definitely captures this. I kept thinking as I was reading “How horrible; how could this have happened?” It is just a reminder of how precious freedom really is.

    Jenners: there you go!!! This book also made me appreciate my life here in the present day!

    Sari: Thanks! I found that little kitten on google images and then created a button (to satisfy the FTC disclosure guidelines).

    Les: oh, I think this would be a good discussion group book…but yes, it is a slow start so people need to be aware of that.

  12. January 27, 2010    

    I think I’ve finally decided that I’d like to read this book. I was back and forth on it for a long time. Glad you enjoyed it.

  13. January 29, 2010    

    I read this book last October. I found it to be a powerful read for both women’s rights and religious freedom.. I do agree that at times the story was slow but in reflection I think that was a bit necessary to set up the story…the situation…the tension. It actually wound up on my Favorites of 2009 list
    You wrote a fabulous review!

  14. January 30, 2010    

    This book sounds fascinating, and I have read many positive reviews about this author. I enjoyed your wonderful review!

  15. January 31, 2010    

    Word Lily: I will be interested to read your thoughts on it!

    Ibeeeg: Looks like we agreed on this book 🙂 Thanks for your kind words about my review too!

    Stephanie: Thanks! I hope you’ll get a chance to read the book at some point – it is a terrific read.

  16. January 31, 2010    

    This is one I am hoping to read. I love historical fiction!

  17. February 6, 2010    

    Sheila: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it 🙂

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