Sacred Hearts, author Sarah Dunant's latest, is an engrossing, fascinating story about cloistered nuns set in 16th century Italy in the fictional convent of Santa Caterina. Inside the walls of this world apart, a community of women works, prays and lives out its life. While many women heard the call of God and followed, many were placed without their consent, by families unable or unwilling to pay a marriage dowry in a time and place where women had no options apart from marriage.
As the novel opens, a young woman named Serafina has just arrived; gifted with a rare singing talent, and one of those confined against her will, she rails against what she believes to be imprisonment and pines for her lover, a music teacher. Serafina is ministered to by Suora Zuana, the convent's de facto doctor and a middle aged woman cloistered since the death of her father years ago. Zuana is charged with helping the young novice to adjust by Madonna Chiara, the powerful and skilled abbess, who has her own hands full with the political and religious turbulence of the counter-Reformation and a rival within the convent, her second-in-command Suora Umiliana.
What follows is an immensely satisfying novel, full of rich characters, suspense, intrigues and twists and turns. Dunant drew me in from page one and held my attention throughout; her style is nimble and graceful- readable and intelligent without being too dense or heavy. She paints a picture of a largely contented community of women, full of people who may not have chosen the veil but who have found a way to make a life within its limitations. Chiara is as skilled and wily as any politician and Dunant shows a place where the women are encouraged to use their natural gifts for the betterment of all, whether they be gifted singers, artists or diplomats. There is also mystery and mysticism, and somewhere, real faith on display as well. It's a book about religion- and about a particularly oppressive form of religion- that manages to critique it quietly, with respect for those who embrace it. Sacred Hearts is a beautifully written novel that captures what we fear- and was fascinates us- about a life we will never know, and a world that no longer exists.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.