Sacred Hearts

( 65 )

Overview

The year is 1570, and a new novice has just been forced into the Italian convent of Santa Caterina. Ripped by her family from the man she loves, sixteen-year-old Serafina is sharp and defiant. 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. As Serafina rails against her incarceration, disorder and rebellion mount inside the convent, while...
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Overview

The year is 1570, and a new novice has just been forced into the Italian convent of Santa Caterina. Ripped by her family from the man she loves, sixteen-year-old Serafina is sharp and defiant. 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. As Serafina rails against her incarceration, disorder and rebellion mount inside the convent, while beyond its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to impose a regime of oppression that threatens what little freedom the nuns have enjoyed. Acclaimed author Sarah Dunant brings the intricate Renaissance world compellingly to life in this rich, engrossing, multifaceted love story encompassing the passions of the flesh, the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For most of the noble women residing in the convent at Santa Caterina, life in this Renaissance holy place is a tranquil blessing. One new inmate, however, is not so grateful. Serafina, a 16-year-old girl from an aristocratic family, rages from the very first moment of her incarceration; Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress, is obliged to sedate her soon after her arrival. Thus begins a complicated, evolving relationship, one that eventually ensnares other women in this erstwhile sanctuary. An intricate microcosm; a carefully constructed historical novel.
From the Publisher
“A cast of complex characters breathe new life into the classic star-crossed lovers trope while affording readers a look at a facet of Renaissance life beyond the far more common viscounts and courtesans. Dunant’s an accomplished storyteller, and this is a rich and rewarding novel.”–Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Dunant's brilliant imagination is at its powerful best as she re-creates the routines, the crotchets and tiny details of convent life in 1570. The reader can hear the rustle of nuns' habits and the murmur of their prayers….[a] captivating novel…packed with complex relationships, passion, sorrow and religious devotion….this novel unequivocally does what fiction is supposed to do and rarely does: It takes us to a place we could never personally experience. Dunant creates such a living and tangible environment, built on meticulous yet unobtrusive research, that she shares with us the joys and sorrows, the frustration and anger, the rebellion, submission and sometimes even the presence of God.”—Washington Post

“A great read that throws a light in a hidden corner of history, with a bonus: Although written for a secular crowd, it never discounts the possibility of miracles.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Engrossing…. Dunant brings the period vividly to life, portraying in detail the complex, claustrophobic world of the convent.” —Boston Globe

“Original, engrossing, meticulously researched, this is a fascinating tale….This novel has everything: period detail, political intrigue, love, mystery, social strife, and epic cattiness.” —Elle

From the Hardcover edition.

Brigitte Weeks
Dunant's brilliant imagination is at its powerful best as she re-creates the routines, the crotchets and tiny details of convent life in 1570…this novel unequivocally does what fiction is supposed to do and rarely does: It takes us to a place we could never personally experience. Dunant creates such a living and tangible environment, built on meticulous yet unobtrusive research, that she shares with us the joys and sorrows, the frustration and anger, the rebellion, submission and sometimes even the presence of God in the lives of a handful of nuns in 16th-century Italy.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Dunant (The Birth of Venus) revisits 16th-century Italy, where the convents are filled with the daughters of noblemen who are unable or unwilling to pay a dowry to marry them off. The Santa Caterina convent's newest novice, Serafina, is miserable, having been shunted off by her father to separate her from a forbidden romance. She also has a singing voice that will be the glory of the convent and-more importantly to some-a substantial bonus for the convent's coffers. The convent's apothecary, Suora Zuana, strikes up a friendship with Serafina, enlisting her as an assistant in the convent dispensary and herb garden, but despite Zuana's attempts to help the girl adjust, Serafina remains focused on escaping. Serafina's constant struggle and her faith (of a type different from that common to convents) challenge Zuana's worldview and the political structure of Santa Caterina. A cast of complex characters breathe new life into the classic star-crossed lovers trope while affording readers a look at a facet of Renaissance life beyond the far more common viscounts and courtesans. Dunant's an accomplished storyteller, and this is a rich and rewarding novel. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
With her third novel set during the Italian Renaissance (after The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan), Dunant continues to captivate. The year is 1570, and the convent of Santa Caterina, in the northern city of Ferrara, is considered the crown jewel of Italian nunneries. In a time when the cost of a daughter's dowry is staggering, many noblemen choose to marry surplus daughters off to the church, a far less expensive option. Not surprisingly, not all the women are willing participants. This is the story of the unlikely friendship forged between two women—Serafina, the angry, rebellious novice forced into convent life after an illicit affair comes to light, and Zuana, the calm, capable head of the dispensary, who cannot forget her painful assimilation 16 years previously. VERDICT Dunant brilliantly depicts the daily rhythms of convent life and offers an intriguing glimpse into 16th-century church politics. A rich tale filled with passion and the enduring power of faith, this novel is highly recommended for historical fiction readers.—Makiia Lucier, Moscow, ID
Kirkus Reviews
Another Renaissance novel from Dunant (In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, etc.), this one focused on convent life. In 16th-century Italy, convents were not home merely to women who felt called to Christ. They were also repositories for ugly, unconventional or otherwise unmarriageable daughters. Many of these discarded young women were from noble families, and the luxuries and extravagances of court life left them disinclined toward asceticism. Nuns who vowed to avoid unnecessary talk nevertheless managed to gossip. Women committed to poverty lined their rough habits with satin and fur. And the promise of eternal chastity was no safeguard against desire. Dunant does a thorough job of depicting these tensions, conflicts and paradoxes. She captures convent life and sets it in a larger cultural context, paying particular attention to the religious politics of the times. The novel boasts a bibliography of 56 titles, and the reader who is so inclined can make a game of guessing which historical or theological tidbit came from which source. Unfortunately, this is about the only form of entertainment on offer here. The book has none of the dash, energy and storytelling confidence that made Dunant's last novel so enjoyable. She seems overwhelmed or overawed by her material, and the narrative is not merely slow but oddly repetitive. Characters make the same discoveries again and again, and even the most dramatic events simply dissipate. The repetitive plot does have the effect of giving the reader a sense of a nun's existence, defined as it is by a never-deviating schedule of devotions. For the nun with a true vocation, this is no doubt a source of comfort and even elation, a release frommundane time and a tantalizing foretaste of eternity. But the average reader is likely to identify with those extraneous daughters interred against their will, struggling to stay awake and yearning for a little action. A disappointing effort from a talented writer. Author tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812974058
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/6/2010
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 265,648
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge, all three of which are available as Random House Trade Paperbacks. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

British novelist, broadcaster, and critic Sarah Dunant is well known on both sides of the pond for her bestselling series of mysteries featuring sleuth Hannah Wolfe. Other novels feature the challenging, often absurd, choices women face for love and identity.

Dunant's first two novels were actually co-authored with Peter Busby, thus creating their pseudonym, Peter Dunant. In Exterminating Angels (1983), whether they're called terrorists or modern-day Robin Hoods, the Exterminating Angels are out to set the record straight. For them, the ends always justify the means when righting the wrongs of the world. The political thriller Intensive Care (1986) describes a chance meeting at the site of an explosion in London.

The first book to be released under her own name was Snow Storms in a Hot Climate (1987), and features Marla Masterson. Marla, a young British professor of Anglo Saxon Literature goes to New York City to rescue a friend from her drug-addled, abusive boyfriend, but not before a murder mystery ensnares them all.

Three years later, Dunant introduced readers to Hannah Wolfe, a tough and witty Private Investigator. In Birth Marks (1990), Wolfe is hired to find a missing ballerina. Unfortunately, the dancer is found by the police -- eight months pregnant and at the bottom of the Thames. When everyone but Wolfe writes off the young single woman's death as a suicide, Wolfe pushes her investigation into London's dance companies and powerful Parisian families, searching for the father. Wolfe's reputation is put on the chopping block in Fatlands (1993). Wolfe finds herself on the trail of a violent animal rights activist group after they kill the daughter of a wealthy scientist for using animals in his experiments. The novel won Dunant a Silver Dagger award for Crime Fiction. Disguised as a customer, Wolfe investigates a string of sabotage at the Castle Dean health spa in Under My Skin (1995) and soon learns that, to some, beauty is something to die -- or kill -- for.

Breaking from her Hannah Wolfe series, Dunant's next release explores the line between victim and victor. In Transgressions (1997), translator Lizzie Skvorecky is making a living translating cheap Czech thrillers into English. When the strange events of the novels seem to occur in her real life, Lizzie realizes that someone -- or something -- is tampering with her reality, and accepts the violent challenge to her sanity. Kirkus reviews describes the novel as "an unsettling, often chilling, portrait of a compulsive predator and the woman who refuses to be his prey."

Mapping the Edge (1999) also portrays a woman's unusual challenges. When Anna, a single mother, takes a short vacation to Italy, leaving her six-year-old daughter with trusted friends, no one thinks twice. Until she doesn't return when scheduled. Anna's friends and her daughter endure the painful waiting while Dunant offers two explanations of Anna's disappearance. What if Anna abandoned the responsibility of motherhood to follow a hot love affair? Or perhaps Anna's life is in the hands of a sadistic killer.

Along with writing fiction, Dunant has also edited two works of non-fiction. War of the Words: The Politically Correct Debate (1994) debates the ever-changing idea of what is "acceptable" and the effect political correctness has on Liberalism. In The Age of Anxiety (1999), ten essayists discuss their anxiety -- or optimism -- for issues such as technology, family, and the end of the millennium.

Dunant's 2004 release marks her foray into historical fiction. The Birth of Venus captures the passion and the politics of deMedici Florence in the grips of a fundamentalist religious overhaul. As the city starts to purge itself of "the low and vulgar arts," the novel's heroine, Alessandra, falls in love with a young, suffering painter. Although her family marries her to a much older man, it is mostly a dismal marriage of convenience and she has a surprisingly large amount of time to spend at the side of her true love. Intelligent and daring, Duanant has combined a love story, a thriller and a historical novel in telling Alessandra's quest to find and protect her passions.

Good To Know

In our interview, Dunant shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself with us:

"I once worked as a hostess in a Japanese nightclub."

"My left foot is bigger than my right."

"I cannot whistle (no Humphrey Bogart for me, then)."

"Alas I don't have time to relax, although I am trying. The most important things in my life are my work, my children, my friends, and the possibility of a plane ticket to somewhere I have not yet been. When my kids grow up I want to have enough energy to get out a rucksack and take a long trip without a due-back-by date and the wonder to be changed by what I discover en route. Though right at this moment what I would like most is to remember where I put the car keys."

"And when it comes to writing, I just want to say that the novel is not the author. Just as the life is not the work or the work the life;instead literature is a kind of alchemy: turning lead into gold. Or at least that's the ambition."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Peter Dunant
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 8, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., Cambridge University, 1973

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Before the screaming starts, the night silence of the convent is already alive with its own particular sounds.

In a downstairs cell, Suora Ysbeta’s lapdog, swaddled like a baby in satin cloth, is hunting in its dreams, muzzled grunts and growls marking the pleasure of each rabbit cornered. Ysbeta herself is also busy with the chase, her silver tray doubling as a mirror, her right hand poised as she closes a pair of tweezers over a stubborn white hair on her chin. She pulls sharply, the sting and the satisfaction of the release in the same short aah of breath.

Across the courtyard two young women, plump and soft-cheeked as children, lie together on a single pallet, entwined like kindling twigs, their faces so close they seem almost to be exchanging breaths, the one inhaling as the other lets go: in, out, in, out. There is a slight sweetness to the air—angelica, perhaps, or sweet mint—as if they have both eaten the same sugared cake or drunk from the same spiced wine cup. Whatever they have imbibed, it has left them both sleeping soundly, their contentment a low hum of pleasure in the room.

Suora Benedicta, meanwhile, can barely contain herself, there is so much music inside her head. Tonight it is a setting of the Gradual for the Feast of the Epiphany, the different voices like colored tapestry threads weaving in and over one another. Sometimes they move so fast she can barely chalk them down, this stream of white notes on her slate blackboard. There are nights when she doesn’t seem to sleep at all, or when the voices are so insistent she is sure she must be singing out loud with them. Still, no one admonishes her the next day, or wakes her if she slips into a sudden nap in the refectory. Her compositions bring honor and benefactors to the convent, and so her eccentricities are overlooked.

In contrast, young Suora Perseveranza is in thrall to the music of suffering. A single tallow candle spits shadows across her cell. Her shift is so thin she can feel the winter damp as she leans back against the stone wall. She pulls the cloth up over her calves and thighs, then more carefully across her stomach, letting out a series of fluttering moans as the material sticks and catches on the open wounds underneath. She stops, breathing fast once or twice to still herself, then tugs harder where she meets resistance, until the half-formed skin tears and lifts off with the cloth. The candlelight reveals a leather belt nipped around her waist, a series of short nails on the inside, a few so deeply embedded in the flesh beneath that all that can be seen are the crusted swollen wounds where leather and skin have fused together. Slowly, deliberately, she presses on one of the studs. Her hand jumps back involuntarily, a cry bursting out of her, but there is an exhilaration to the sound, a challenge to herself as her fingers go back again.

She keeps her gaze fixed on the wall ahead, where the guttering light picks out a carved wooden crucifix: Christ, young, alive, His muscles running through the grain as His body strains forward against the nails, His face etched with sorrow. She stares at Him, her own body trembling, tears wet on her cheeks, her eyes bright. Wood, iron, leather, flesh. Her world is contained in this moment. She is within His suffering; He is within hers. She is not alone. Pain has become pleasure. She presses the stud again and her breath comes out in a long satisfying growl, almost an animal sound, consumed and consuming.

In the next-door cell, Suora Umiliana’s fingers pause briefly over her chattering rosary beads. The sound of the young sister’s devotion is like the taste of honey in her mouth. When she was younger she too had sought God through open wounds, but now as novice mistress it is her duty to put the spiritual well-being of others before her own. She bows her head and returns to her beads.

...

in her cell above the infirmary, Suora Zuana, Santa Caterina’s dispensary mistress, is busy with her own kind of prayer. She sits bent over Brunfels’s great book of herbs, her forehead creased in concentration. Next to her is a recently finished sketch of a geranium plant, the leaves of which have proved effective at stanching cuts and flesh wounds—one of the younger nuns has started passing clots of blood, and she is searching for a compound to stop a wound she cannot see.

Perseveranza’s moans echo along the upper cloister corridor. Last summer, when the heat brought the beginnings of infection to the wounds and those who sat next to the young nun in chapel complained about the smell, the abbess had sent her to the dispensary for treatment. Zuana had washed and dressed the angry lesions as best she could and given her ointment to reduce the swelling. There is nothing more she can do. While it is possible that Perseveranza might eventually poison herself with some deeper infection, she is healthy enough otherwise, and from what Zuana knows of the way the body works she doesn’t think this will happen. The world is full of stories of men and women who live with such mutilations for years, and while Perseveranza might talk fondly enough of death, it is clear that she gains too much joy from her suffering to want to end it prematurely.

Zuana herself doesn’t share this passion for self-mortification. Before she came to the convent she had lived for many years as the only child of a professor of medicine. His very reason for being alive had been to explore the power of nature to heal the body, and she cannot remember a moment in her life when she didn’t share his fervor. She would have made a fine doctor or teacher like him, had such a thing been possible. As it is, she was fortunate that after his death his name and his estate were good enough to buy her a cell in the convent of Santa Caterina, where so many noblewomen of Ferrara find space to pursue their own ways to live inside God’s protection.

Still, any convent, however well adjusted, trembles a little when it takes in one who really does not want to be there.

...

zuana looks up from her table. The sobbing coming from the recently arrived novice’s cell is now too loud to be ignored. What started as ordinary tears has grown into angry howls. As dispensary mistress it is Zuana’s job, should things become difficult, to settle any newcomer by means of a sleeping potion. She turns over the hourglass. The draft is already mixed and ready in the dispensary. The only question is how long she should wait.

It is a delicate business, judging the depth of a novice’s distress. A certain level of upset is only natural: once the feasting is over and the family has left, the great doors bolted behind them, even the most devout of young women can suffer a rush of panic when faced with the solitude and silence of the closed cell.

Those with relatives inside are the easiest to settle. Most of them have cut their teeth on convent cakes and biscuits, so pampered and fussed over through years of visiting that the cloister is already a second home. If—as it might—the day itself unleashes a flurry of exhausted tears, there is always an aunt, sister, or cousin on hand to cajole or comfort them.

For others, who might have harbored dreams of a more flesh-and-blood bridegroom or left a favorite brother or doting mother, the tears are as much a mourning for the past as fear of the future. The sisters in charge treat them gently as they clamber out of dresses and petticoats, shivering from nerves rather than cold, their naked arms raised high in the air in readiness for the shift. But all the care in the world cannot disguise the loss of freedom, and though some might later substitute silk for serge (such fashionable transgressions are ignored rather than allowed), that first night girls with soft skin and no proclivity for penance can be driven mad by the itch and the scratch. These tears have an edge of self-pity to them, and it is better to cry them now, for they can become a slow poison if left to fester.

Eventually the storm will blow itself out and the convent return to sleep. The watch sister will patrol the corridors, keeping tally of the time until Matins, some two hours after midnight, at which point she will pass through the great cloister in the dark, knocking on each door in turn but missing that of the latest arrival. It is a custom in Santa Caterina to allow the newcomer to spend her first night undisturbed, so the next day will find her refreshed and better prepared to enter her new life.

Tonight, however, no one will do much sleeping.

In the bottom of the hourglass the hill of sand is almost complete, and the wailing has grown so violent that Zuana feels it in her stomach as well as her head—as if a wayward troop of devils has forced its way inside the girl’s cell and is even now winding her intestines on a spit. In their dormitory, the young boarders will be waking in terror. The hours between Compline and Matins mark the longest sleep of the night, and any disturbance now will make the convent bleary-eyed and foul-tempered tomorrow. In between the screams, Zuana registers a cracked voice rising up in tuneless song from the infirmary. Night fevers conjure up all manner of visions among the ill, not all of them holy, and it will not help to have the crazed and the sickly joining in the chorus.

Zuana leaves her cell swiftly, her feet knowing the way better than her eyes. As she moves down the stairs into the main cloister and enters the great courtyard, she is held for a second, as she often is, by its sheer beauty. From the moment she first stood here, sixteen years ago, the walls around threatening to crush her, it has offered a space for peace and dreams. By day the air is so still it seems as if time itself has stopped, while in the dark you can almost hear the rush of angels’ wings behind you. Not tonight, though. Tonight the stone well in the middle looms up like a gray ship in a sea of black, the sound of the girl’s sobbing a wild wind echoing around it. It reminds her of the story her father used to tell of the time he sailed to the East Indies to collect plant specimens and how they found a merchant boat abandoned in steamy waters, the only sign of life the screeching of a starving parrot left on board. “Just imagine, carissima. If only we could have understood that bird’s language, what secrets might it have revealed?”

Unlike him, Zuana has never seen the ocean, and the only siren voices she knows are those of soaring sopranos in chapel or wailing women in the night. Or the yelping of noisy dogs—like the one now yapping in Suora Ysbeta’s cell, a small matted ball of hair and bad smells with teeth sharp enough to bite through its night muzzle and join in the drama. Yes, it is time for the sleeping draft.

The air in the infirmary is thick with tallow-candle smoke and the rosemary fumigant that she keeps burning constantly to counteract the stench of illness. She passes the young choir sister crippled by her bleeding insides, her body curled in over itself, eyes tight shut in a way that speaks of prayer rather than sleep. In the remaining beds the other sisters are as old as they are ill, their lungs filled with winter damp, so they bubble and rasp as they breathe. Most of them are deaf to anything but the voices of angels, though not above competing as to whose choir is the sweetest.

“Oh, sweet Jesus! It is coming. Save us all.”

While Suora Clementia’s ears are still sharp enough to make out the pad of a cat’s paw, her mind is so clouded that she might read it as the footfall of the devil’s messenger or the first sign of the Second Coming.

“Hush.”

“Hear the screaming! Hear the screaming!” The old woman is bolt upright in the last bed, her arms flapping as if to beat off some invisible attack. “The graves are opening. We will all be consumed.”

Zuana catches her hands and pulls them down onto the sheets, holding them still while she waits for the nun to register her presence. In the Great Silence that runs from Compline until daybreak, the ill and the mad will be forgiven for breaking the rule but others risk grave penance for any squandered speech.

“Shhh.”

Across the courtyard another howl rises up, followed by a crash and a splintering of wood. Zuana pushes the old nun gently back down toward the bed, settling her as best she can. The tang of fresh urine lifts off the sheet. It can wait until morning. The servant sisters will be gentler if they have had some sleep.

Taking the night-light, she moves swiftly into the dispensary, which lies behind a door at the far end of the infirmary. On the wall in front of her, pots, vials, and bottles dance in rhythm to the flickering flame. She knows each and every one of them; this room is her home, more familiar to her even than her cell. She takes a glass vial from a drawer and, after a second’s hesitation, reaches for a bottle from the second shelf, uncorks it, and adds some further drops of syrup. Any novice who breaks furniture as well as silence will need a strong soporific.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Imagine you were Serafina’s father. What would influence your decision to send your daughter to a convent? Do you think he was being cruel or practical?

2. Nuns—from Hildegard of Bingen to Maria in The Sound of Music—have always been the subject of huge fascination to many people. What do you think makes them so interesting?

3. Do you see the sisters of Santa Caterina as prisoners confined within the convent walls or, given the harsh reality of life outside for women, do you believe they in fact enjoyed more freedom and creativity than women on the outside? If you were a woman living then and could choose to live inside or out, which choice would you make?

4. Serafina suffers from holy anorexia. Many people today think of eating disorders as a product of contemporary fashion,
celebrity, and pop culture, but what can holy anorexia teach us about the modern disease?

5. Which of the characters do you think suffer in the restrictive environment and which of them thrive and learn to manipulate the system? How do you think you would have responded if placed in such an environment?

6. Why do you think Dunant chose to set her story entirely within the convent’s walls? How would the novel have been different had she written more about the world outside them?

7. With Sacred Hearts, Dunant completes what she’s called her Renaissance trilogy, which includes her two previous novels, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan. As a trilogy, they paint the possible lives of ordinary women in the Renaissance. Why do you think the author set out to do this?

8. The relationship between Suora Zuana and Serafina is an interesting and complex one. What is it about Serafina that attracts Zuana’s attentions and affection? And what is it about Zuana that appeals to Serafina?

9. The convent of Santa Caterina is filled with an intriguing variety of nuns, from the powerful abbess Madonna Chiara, the ancient visionary Suora Magdalena, dispensary mistress Suora Zuana, and the devout and ambitious novice mistress Suora Umiliana. Which of these sisters interested you the most? Which ones did you think seemed the most contemporary, the most like women you might know yourself ?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 65 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(12)

4 Star

(25)

3 Star

(13)

2 Star

(9)

1 Star

(6)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 65 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 6, 2009

    Dunant's best work since The Birth of Venus!

    An inspiring, powerful, & moving tale of the strength of women's compassion in a society where they are downtrodden & treated like property. Along the way there is danger, intrigue, & life-threatening situations. If you love medieval era fiction, this is for you. If you love Philippa Gregory or Jeanne Kalogridis, this is a must read.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 29, 2009

    What do you do with unnecessary women?

    What does a family do when they have more daughters than money for marriage dowries? What do they do when their daughter is born with a disfiguring defect, or has a pitted face from smallpox? What do they do when their defiant daughter decides she will choose her own lover? What does a lone daughter do when her life of silently helping her father in his business is shattered because he dies and she is not allowed to work on her own? Well in 1500's Italy, these girls find themselves in a Convent of Sisters.
    SACRED HEARTS by Sarah Dunant tells a varied and passionate story of these many women as they learn to live and survive within their forced new home. There is no way out until death comes, but that does not mean that the women do not think of many ways to work around the system. There are many characters in this book that draw our attention, but my two favorite were rebellious Sarafina with the beautiful voice who wants only to sing for her lover who appreciates her music to his very soul, and Suora Zuana who is the dispensary mistress and befriends Sarafina. Suora Zuana has been in the convent for many years and has settled into her own healing life because she has been able to practice her art with herbs and drafts which she learned from her father before his untimely death.
    This woman's story is filled with devotion, love, determination, and strong wills as the women work and dispute together trying to find their place in a world of spiritual beliefs, and imprisonment of women with no political powers. How determination and brainpower helps one woman determine her own fate is the essential power of this story. Love and the medicinal power of natural plants adds a great deal to this story and brings to mind Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfeal, but knowing that the Sister has not the roaming power of a Brother adds an extra dimension to this story.
    A different part of the world for women in 16th Century Italy makes for a fascinating story. Whether you are a believer or studier of women, you will find this book well suited to your needs and interest.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Habits off ...

    Sacred Hearts is the latest novel by Sarah Dunant. Set in a convent in Renaissance Italy, Ms. Dunant paints a revealing picture of a nun's life during the latter half of the sixteenth century. In a time when young women were subject to the will of their fathers, one's options were limited. Either you married who was selected for you or you joined a convent - neither choice is very appealing.
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    The novel revolves around Serafina, a defiant young lady who is forced into religious servitude, and Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress who was also an unwilling addition to convent life. From the start of Serafina's incarceration, the relationship that develops between these two women is one of trust, betrayal and survival. We watch as they navigate through religious dogma and convent politics. Ms. Dunant has brought them to life - we cannot help but feel for them through their struggles and triumphs, when their hopes are dashed, when they give up their dreams, when they accept their fate, .... I know that I am grateful that I did not live in during that time period.
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    The writing kept me interested and the plot is filled with drama and intrigue. I was hooked from the beginning and wanted to know what would happen next to these two women. I highly recommend to those who have read previous works of Sarah Dunant and to those who like historical fiction.
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    Thank you to LibraryThing and Random House for this ARE.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 15, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    A Study in Character and Setting

    If you are looking for terrific characterization and vivid settings, you will love this novel of convent life in 1500s Italy. If you're looking for plot-driven or formula stories, this isn't one. Just looking at Ms. Dunnant's Bibliography will tell you how much time she spent digging into the history of the time. Exquisite detail. Highly recommended. James Conroyd Martin Author of Push Not the River & Against a Crimson Sky

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 26, 2009

    Interesting history in Sacred Hearts

    I bought this after hearing the NPR interview. I was mostly interested in how she tied in the convent history to a plausible story. Dunant did a great job of tying her research into a story that could have happened. I was entertained while learning about where the less desirable daughters went, convents, medicine and mores of the time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 16, 2009

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    Really Excellent----

    Hundreds of years ago, a convent was often considered a peaceful refuge for women, particularly widows with no place else to go, and a blessed relief for them if their husbands had been abusive. Within the convent there was discipline, but also considerable autonomy as the women governed decisions concerning daily life. Younger women forced into convents due to an insufficient dowry were not always so happy, as they contemplated a life sentence of being cut off from the world. In this novel, Serafina is such a one. Entering a 16th-century Italian convent under duress and sick with love for a man her family considers unsuitable, she rages against her fate, as many another has done to no avail. Clever, beautiful, and wily, Serafina manages to throw the convent into turmoil as her moods swing in all directions - fury, excessive piety, sullen cooperation, and back again. Unmanageable as she is, many within the sisterhood, from the abbess to the novice mistress, view her as an opportunity, and each woman has her own agenda. This plays out in a completely absorbing story, beautifully written, with a delicious ending.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 17, 2010

    Intriguing Story, Takes A While To Get Into

    I've loved Sarah Dunant's other two historical fiction novels (In The Company of the Courtesan and The Birth of Venus), and looked forward to reading this book. It took a little while for me to get into - the story almost completely takes place inside the walls of a convent. But once you get into it (and past some of the cliches), it really is an enjoyable read. Definitely makes you thrilled to live in the present - not one of those books that will make you yearn for the "good old days." In fact, it's horrifying in its depiction of women in the 1500s for two reasons - 1) that women could only have a shred of independence and self-governance within the walls of a nunnery; and 2)that their "freedom" was subject to the whims of the ruling church hierarchy. All in all, a good read, just be prepared to take a few pages to warm up to the characters.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2009

    A unique book

    This book was something different than I have ever read before. I did enjoy it. It all comes together at the end.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 5, 2009

    A disappointment!

    This was a great dissappointment after Dunant's previous novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 13, 2014

    Beautifully researched & gripping story of a little-known world

    This book is a gem. Thirsty for historical fiction set in medieval Italy after I returned from a recent trip there, I had read another terrific book written by Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus), but then found I enjoyed Sacred Hearts even more. This dramatic story set within the cloistered but not-so-reserved world of nuns was beautifully told, and depicted the social world of that era in Italy, as well as the world of the convent, which differed in ways large & small from convents of our era. Ms. Dunant does wonderful character studies within her fiction, and I'm convinced, after reading this, understands borderline personality disorder. I am looking forward to reading more from her.

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  • Posted February 27, 2011

    Highly recommend

    I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. While the characters are all fiction, the setting is historically and geographically real. No strong language or erotic descriptions, so this might not appeal to anyone who likes "spicier" reading material.

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  • Posted May 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A historically accurate, if slow, novel of convent life in Renaissance Italy

    Sarah Dunant, author of In the Company of the Courtesan: A Novel and The Birth of Venus: A Novel, brings us the lives of cloistered nuns in Sacred Hearts. Set in 1570 Ferrara, Sacred Hearts follows the paths of two very different women: the gentle, inquisitive Suora Zuana, who runs the dispensary and is in charge of the convent's medicinal gardens, and Serafina, a fiery sixteen-year-old incarcerated against her will after a tryst with a music teacher. Many of the women in the Santa Caterina convent entered the convent because of physical or mental disability, illicit romances, or simply because of the exorbitant dowries demanded by the era.

    The intricate social hierarchy of the convent is drawn out in detail, as are the numerous "overlooked" forbidden items such as makeup, mirrors, and other worldly symbols of vanity. The exacting schedule of prayers creates the daily order of the nuns' lives, embellished by the rare performance or concert for the convent's benefactors. The abbess, Madonna Chiara, has spent nearly her whole life within the convent's walls, but has a wisdom and grace that reach far beyond her limited experience with the outside world.

    The abbess has her hands full dealing with several complicated issues: the elderly, barely alive Suora Magdalena sees visions, which drives the young novices into a frenzy. Suora Umiliana seeks to usurp the abbess's position by scourging the convent from ungodly influences and encourages harsh fasting and visions. And Serafina rages and lashes out against her confinement, trying to be reunited with Jacopo. Zuana treats Serafina like the daughter she will never possess.

    Zuana is the main narrator, and she is an interesting figure: she only entered the convent because she was ill-suited for marriage, and despite a rich education in herbal medicine and anatomy from her father, as a woman she could never attend a university. She put her father's herbal cures to use, and is guided by his voice. She admits to never having religious visions, and knows that she does not pray as often as she should, but she finds comfort in the spirituality of nature. Serafina's rebellious nature is a challenge to her, even though it seems that the girl has promise as an assistant. Zuana finds herself softening, bending rules that she never would have questioned before. Serafina undergoes an apparently miraculous transformation from rebellious spitfire to docile penitent. The novel also highlights the dark realities of religious hysteria (miracles, stigmata, voluntary starvation and self-harm to bring on visions) that plagued convents.

    Despite the rich layers of detail that bring the austere convent life into sharp focus, Sacred Hearts was a very slow read and I almost put it down for good on several occasions. Time slows to a crawl during the lengthy segments dealing with illness and the prescribed herbal remedies, Serafina's drug-induced hallucinations and physical torments, and religious politics. Normally, I'm a huge fan of historical fiction (historical art fiction in particular), but Sacred Hearts just didn't hold my attention.

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  • Posted October 9, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Dunant does it again!

    Another great read from Sarah Dunant! I love reading about this period in history, and found this especially interesting. Other friends have enjoyed it as well. The attention given to research is especially evident and translates well into the story. She has a very good grasp of the characters and makes them jump off the page.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2009

    Unusual Setting

    This is an enjoyable book but will probably be appreciated more by those who have some knowledge of cloistered women. For those who don't some of the actions may seem somewhat bizarre. There's nothing unique about the plot, but the period and the setting are certainly out of the ordinary. Overall, it was a very entertaining and can be readily recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    My Sistahs loved the Sisters!!

    For those who loved The Birth of Venus and In The Company of a Courtesan, this is a great read -- perhaps not as dense as its predecessors, this novel nonetheless makes the period and the women who inhabit it (!!) seem alive and even pulsating. Ms. Dunant always paints an indelible picture of the lives of the women she seems to fall in love with, inextricably interlaced with details of the historical context that creates their challenges and victories.

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  • Posted September 12, 2009

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    Very Disappointed.

    Didn't even finish the book.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 13, 2010

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    Posted November 6, 2010

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