* Prices may differ from that shown
The year is 1570, and all 'hell' is about to break out in the convent of Santa Caterina. Set in Ferrara, Northern Italy, this quiet peaceful convent has been a haven of religious sanctimony for years, even centuries. Many young girls are forced into convent life by their families. This is due to the fact that wedding dowries are very expensive, and families can only afford to marry off one daughter. It was cheaper to put the other daughters, many against their will, into the convent, where only a small donation was required. It is, upon the forced arrival of 16 year old Serafina, that questions start to be asked and nuns of a high standing are doubted.
Sacred Hearts is written by Sarah Dunant, who is well known for her Italian historical novels, set in the Renaissance period. She has certainly written an interesting and factual tale, or should I say love story, in her latest book, which is bursting with relevant details along with a bibliography to back up and support her work. It is basically a novel following two nun's in the Santa Caterina convent, and how their lives intertwine, causing them both to rethink their purpose in life. It is an interesting story, and one which needs to be finished as the ending is what makes the story.
The two main characters are Serafina and Zuana. Many other nuns are mentioned, and the abbess, Madonna Chiara, has an interesting role.
Sister Serafina enters the convent at the tender age of 16. Her family have forced her into the isolated convent life, as she had fallen in love with a lowly singer, beneath her status. At first, Serafina defies the convent way of living, then as she hopes to be rescued by her love, she starts to conform. She has a wonderful voice, that similar to an angel, and she uses this as her 'weapon' to deceive the other nuns.
Sister Zuana has been living at the convent for many years. Her father was a physician who taught his daughter many medical remedies and facts. Upon his death, Zuana was left without family to care for her, so the convent took her in. She actually accepted the way of life, as she was allowed to run the infirmary and continue her medical studies. It was seeing poor Serafina, watching her suffer, which made Zuana question the convent and the imprisonment of new nuns. It also made her question her loyalty to those in higher places.
Firstly, I must mention, that I did find the first third of the book slightly tedious and rather slow, both the way of writing and the actual story were dragging along at a snails pace. It was not until the actual events (which were being built up in the first third) started to happen that the story came alive and thoroughly enjoyable, from here I whizzed through the novel. I was, initially, tempted to give up, but after reading so many good reviews, I felt I had to give it a chance and am extremely glad I persevered.
What I found really interesting was learning all about the lives of the actual nuns. To me, there has always been something dark and mysterious about the way in which nun's live. The doors are shut to the outside world, and through this novel, it allows us to see what actually went on in those times. The nun's formed a small community, and although this convent was far more relaxed than others, they still had strict regulations and were punished for disobeying the rules. Their lives were dictated by rules set to a rigid timetable, including prays ( 7 times a day), meals, work hours and also social time when outside families were able to come and visit at set times during the week.
It was fascinating to read, although fictional, about the relationship between the various nuns. There were those of extreme faith, acting as Brides of Christ, who felt their convent was too lax, and there were those who had been forced into this extreme lifestyle, accepted it, and were unwilling to change it. Many of these young girls were technically imprisoned, deprived of love and motherhood, had no form of escape, and if by some miracle, they did, they would be hunted down by the police, all because their families could not, or would not, pay their marriage dowries. The actual internal politics within the convent was intriguing to say the least. What was meant to be one of the most peaceful existence's on earth, was riddled with in house corruption, bullying and overall manipulation.
One thing that I did find confusing was all the different nun's names. Firstly, they are known as Suora (as in Sister) for some of the book, and then at other times they are just known by their name. Also I felt that many of the nuns were not introduced fully. By this I mean their introduction was so brief it was hard to pin point who they were when they were later mentioned. Their names are quite complex, like Perseveranza, Umiliana, Magdalena and Benedicta and I just felt confused every time they were reintroduced.
I feel that maybe I have been a bit unfair by only awarding three stars. Almost every review I have seen has raved about this book, but I did find it far too slow in the beginning. It is worth reading (and maybe it is me that is slow!) and has some excellent historical content. The story itself is intriguing, educational and (later on) a good read. The characters are complex and well developed, allowing for an interesting plot. It is an historical love story, which combines religion, conflict, and deviance, embracing a mountain of emotions.
Sacred Hearts is published by Virago
Number of pages 461