Tuesday, March 20, 2012
REVIEW: The Nun, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby
The Nun is a book that I really hope historical-fiction readers will flock to buy. Set in nineteenth century Italy during the unification period, it's the story of teenage Agata, the bookish daughter of a noble family fallen on hard times. She's the second-to-last daughter; her family is out of money but she is in love with Giacomo, a neighbor who loves her back but whose family wants him to marry a wealthy girl with a dowry. Agata's mother is desperate to marry her off but when no agreement can be made with Giacomo's family and Agata resists an arranged marriage with a much-older man, the only option left is to put an unwilling Agata into a convent.
And this it seems was not an unusual fate for Italian girls of her station for several centuries. Two years ago I read a solid, if lighter, novel called Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant, also about a young girl secreted to a nunnery against her will while she harbored a passion for a man her family didn't want her to be with. The Nun covers a lot of the same ground but with more of a literary bent. Dunant's heroine is wholly opposed to the cloistered life; Agata is conflicted. She tries to make a life for herself "on the inside," learning baking and apothecary skills, trying to make friends and allies among the many relatives she finds in the convent world. But far from being bastions of piety, the convents are rife with luxury, gossip, bullying and secrets, and when she finds herself on the other side of powerful priests, her hope of escape wastes away. Agata has her own secret: a longstanding friendship with an English man who sends her books and who may even offer more- love, salvation, and escape.
I thought The Nun was a really terrific read and deserves to make its way into the hands of historical fiction fans as well as readers interested in Italy. The research that must have gone into the book is very impressive. I loved all the colorful detail Hornby includes about convent life, Italian religious celebrations and the politics of the time. But most of all I love the complexity of the characters, especially Agata, who has so much to work out while all customs, politics and social changes stream around her. I love that she's not simplistic or single-minded; I love that she really struggles with herself. Sometimes she finds contentment in ritual, routine and a preordained life; sometimes she rebels and works hard to find a way out. You'll have to read the book to find out her ultimate fate, but I really hope you do!
This counts towards The Europa Challenge. I've now read 3 books this year towards my goal of 12.
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.