Sacred Hearts

Sacred Hearts

by Sarah Dunant


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812974058
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/06/2010
Series: Random House Reader's Circle
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 523,130
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

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.


London, England

Date of Birth:

August 8, 1950

Place of Birth:

London, England


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.


“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.


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.

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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Sacred Hearts 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 118 reviews.
Animal-Lover More than 1 year ago
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.
CathyB More than 1 year ago
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. ----- 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. ----- 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. ----- Thank you to LibraryThing and Random House for this ARE.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
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.
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
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.
JConMartin More than 1 year ago
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
VALADY More than 1 year ago
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.
KathyOVA More than 1 year ago
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.
J_Reader_1 More than 1 year ago
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.
amandacb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've always enjoyed Dunant's luscious prose, and Sacred Hearts is no exception. Convents and nuns themselves have always fascinated me, as it seems very "secret society" and mysterious. The different personas evinced throughout the novel sated my interest; however, the one recurring irritant is the character of Serafina (the young novitiate). I found her incredibly naive, selfish, and arrogant, completely unlikeable, even after I strived to place myself "in her shoes." It was hard for me to believe someone, anyone, could just take so much pity on her and risk as much as the nun did for Serafina. Perplexing, and ultimately it made me score the novel three stars instead of four stars.
alyson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really found the women in the convent fascinating.
catzkc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It was nice to read about the life of everyday people in a historical setting, and not just those who are famous or royal. This is not a plot-driven page-turner. But the writing is excellent, and I think the author really did a good job in the research department. You feel like you're right there in the cloisters with the nuns, so many years ago.
GMac on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God¿s protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina¿s new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant¿young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. 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 between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, for whom the girl becomes the daughter she will never have.As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena¿with her history of visions and ecstasies¿locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. As disorder and rebellion mount, it is the abbess¿s job to keep the convent stable while, outside its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to purge the Catholic Church and impose on the nunneries a regime of terrible oppression.Sarah Dunant, the bestselling author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, brings this intricate Renaissance world compellingly to life. Amid Sacred Hearts is a rich, engrossing, multifaceted love story, encompassing the passions of the flesh, the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship.
kerinlo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sarah Dunant delivers a compelling and dramatic novel about a young nun, Serafina, who is forced to enter a convent against her will. Dunant artfully combines history and fiction to help her reader understand and learn about convent life, both the difficulty and the beauty, during the sixteenth century. Her characters are complex and dramatic. I found her main characters, Serafina and Suora Zuana, to be well rounded and complex, although I wish she had shown us more of Suora Zuana'a internal conflict about Serafina. I would also have liked to learn more about her Suora Zuana's past and her own reluctance to submit to a life as a nun, even though she clearly had very little option. Ultimately I found this novel be a success for Dunant.
keywestnan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An engaging historical novel, set in a convent in Renaissance Italy. The story starts off with the arrival of a new novice who has been brought to the convent against her will. But the real drama is the power struggle within the convent hierarchy, between the Abbess who is trying to resist the Counterreformation and another nun who would like to crack down on some of the comforts of convent life -- music, books and even pets.
mlanzotti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A compelling story of convent life during the 1570's in Italy. This story is a reminder to all women of the sexism that still plagues us. Although sometimes convents were a refuge to women, unfortunately they also were a way for wealthy families to get rid of the daughters they did not want to provide dowries for, even if the young women did not want to go in the convent. This is a story of such a woman. It also touches on church politics. Very interesting!
Lila_Gustavus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sacred Hearts is a novel set in the 16th century Italian city of Ferrara. A young girl enters the convent of Santa Caterina to spend her entire life as Suora Serafina. It is obvious that Suora Serafina, formerly known as Isbetta, is put in this convent against her will and she fights fiercely to correct this grievous injustice done to her. Serafina's howling, violent tantrums and screams force another sister, Suora Zuana to remedy the situation before all gets out of control. Zuana is a dispensary mistress (what one might call a doctor nowadays) who had been placed in the convent many years before also against her will. Zuana and Serafina form a special bond while Serafina sorely tries the patience of the abess, Madonna Chiara and all other nuns in the convent. As it is, the times are difficult for all convents across Italy as the pope with the help of bishops imposes more and more rigorous rules. For now, Santa Caterina is safe but how they deal with rebellious Serafina and her strong will to manipulate them all and escape the imprisonment will ultimately decide the fate of the convent. And the midst of all these dangerous changes, one young girl makes a strong impact of all the nuns in Santa Caterina, the impact none of them wanted or anticipated.Sacred Hearts is my second Dunant's novel and it was also my attempt at liking Ms. Dunant's writing. I was sorely disappointed with The Birth of Venus mainly because I relied on all the glorious reviews and expected a masterpiece. As it turned out, I barely managed to finish the book. I took on a different approach as I prepared myself for Sacred Hearts. I avoided reading reviews, especially the 5 or 4 starred ones, and assumed that it would be not so great instead of a read of a lifetime. I am not sure whether it was this strategy of starting at the bottom or if Sacred Hearts was simply better written, but I was this time pleasantly surprised. The story was quite intriguing, it all took place in a convent full of women who probably were put there against their will and taught to accept their fates. The historical background and Ms. Dunant's dedication made me appreciate the whole novel that much more. The book is dedicated to all the women that had been imprisoned in convents and separated from the outside world for no crimes of theirs really. It is a rather slow reading but then again, I don't think it ever were supposed to be a plot and action driven novel. There is an intriguing plot in there but the most interesting part is what an impact one girl can make on all others around her. I especially liked the character of Suora Zuana, this intelligent and skilled in the art of medicine woman whose only misfortune was that she was born in the time when women weren't granted the freedom to seek out their own professions or expand on their interest and passions. Yet she managed to make something out of her life, even if it's spent in a convent. I say if you appreciate more of a literary historical fiction when more patience needs to be involved, you'll definitely appreciate Sacred Hearts.
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The third novel in her Italian Renaissance series, Sarah Dunant transported her readers into the everyday lives of nuns in her latest book, Sacred Hearts. Set in a convent in Northern Italy, Dunant continued her pristine historical writing through strong characters and women's quests to find freedom during a repressed era.The story centered on a young novice, Serafina, who entered the convent against her will. During 16th century Italy, the price of dowries was exorbinantly high, and families with more than one daughter often had to choose which one would get married. Serafina's sister was chosen for marriage, leaving the young woman to become a "bride of Christ," including a smaller dowry that was given to the convent. Serafina was an accomplished singer and had a lover "on the outside," and was heartbroken to be confined to a convent.Serafina disrupted the everyday lives of the convent - ranging in emotions from hysterics to depression - and her advocate was Suora Zuana, the convent's healer. Suora Zuana took the young novice under her wing, attempting to show her that nuns had more rights inside the convent than outside. As in her past books, Dunant created unforgettable characters - ones that taught us more about the history than the plot itself. One of the more fascinating characters was the convent's abbess, Madonna Chiara. The abbess was incredibly savvy, despite her near-lifelong seclusion, and her astute handling of convent politics made her that more interesting. Her adversary was Suora Umiliana - the novice mistress who disagreed with Madonna Chiara's leadership of the convent. And in the middle was Suora Zuana, whose healing included the body and soul.While I enjoyed the characters, there were times when the plot of Sacred Hearts dragged, and I became less interested in the "main" story of Serafina and more interested in the political chess game between Madonna Chiara and Suora Umiliana. I wished Dunant made this conflict more central to the story. Sacred Hearts, in my opinion, is the weakest of the three Italian Renaissance stories because of this plot issue. But that doesn't mean it's a bad book. It just means its predecessors (The Birth of Venus and In The Company of the Courtesan) had a stronger mixture of characters, plots and historical framework. Lovers of historical fiction, especially of the Italian Renaissance, should find all of Dunant's books to be compelling and explorative reads.
LibrarysCat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thank you to Random House Publishing for the opportunity to read and review Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. I found myself completely caught up in the life of the 16th century Italian convent. In the beginning of the novel, the reader feels much like young Serafina, a noblewoman who was to become a novice against her will ¿ confined with wildly individualistic women who were all the same, nuns with vows of obedience defining their every movement ¿ at least on the outside. As the reader comes to know these women, each has her own personality and difficulties. Serafina longs for her lover and fights against the ebb and flow of the convent. Suora Zuana, the convent¿s medicine creator and dispenser, is charged with calming and nurturing the young girl who is none too happy. The nun in charge of the nuns-in-training feels a sense of jealousy over Zuana and Serafina¿s relationship, not to mention the closeness of Zuana to the Headmistress, who must ultimately answer to God and men for all of the convent¿s triumphs and failures. I enjoyed this book immensely - the twists and turns of convent life were amazingly drawn by Dunant. She gave voice to women who did not always have a voice in their own time.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book went from being a Possibly Do Not Finish to a Cannot Even Set Down in the space of some twenty pages, somewhere between pages 60 and 80. Before quitting, I checked some reviews, and decided I should keep going. I was so glad I did!This work of historical fiction takes place in 16th Century Italy, a time of turmoil and upheaval for the Roman Church, which was trying to stand firm against the winds blowing from the Protestant Reformation. The Church responded to the challenge by retreating further into orthodoxy. Nunneries struggled to maintain some autonomy as the Church threatened to make convents even more closed to the world than they already were. The political intrigues were fierce; the power of the Church was balanced by the power of many families who had girls in convents: those considered to be unmarriageable for whatever reason (including insufficient dowries) were sent to religious communities. In Sacred Hearts, Serafina is the name bestowed by the Benedictine order on a new sixteen-year-old novice who has been sent to the convent of Santa Caterina. Her father did not have enough money for a dowry for both Serafina and her sister. Serafina, although in love, had not made a lucrative match. Accordingly she was dispatched against her will to Santa Caterina. Inside the convent walls, Serafina is buffeted between the forces of Reform and of Counter-Reformation reflected in microcosm in Santa Caterina: the Abbess, Sister Chiara, wants to preserve some freedom for her charges, and the mistress of the novices (and Sister Chiara's rival), Sister Umiliana, is fighting for more piety through increased deprivation. Serafina is beautiful, sings like an angel, and is determined to get out of the convent somehow to be with her lover. Her struggles against her confinement awaken the suppressed longings of Sister Zuana, the convent dispensary mistress. Sister Zuana becomes Serafina's ally in her scheme to escape. Zuana, the only child of a professor of medicine, was forced to enter the convent when her father died, leaving her with no means of support on her own. Part of her adjustment to her own fate lay with the fact that inside Santa Caterina, she can practice medicine in a way that would have been totally impossible for a woman on the outside. Serafina becomes anorexic in an attempt to dull her psychic pain. Starving herself not only gives her control over her life, but it reduces her consciousness until she has the supreme comfort of feeling nothing. Sister Zuana, who feels empathy for Serafina's plight, is forbidden by the Abbess to interfere. Sister Umiliana wishes for Serafina to continue to fast and perhaps die in religious ecstasy, validating Sister Umiliana's vision of righteousness. As the story continues, we have no idea if Serafina will live or die. But Sister Zuana risks everything to help her.Evaluation: It is hard to imagine, but this 400-page book about convent life becomes a veritable page turner as the plot progresses. And you will be sad to see it end. If you begin this book and find it slow, stick it out: you will be richly rewarded. Highly recommended.
indygo88 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really like a good historical fiction novel where it's evident that the author has put a lot of research into his/her writing, and such is the case with Sarah Dunant. She does know how to capture the period and draw the reader in. As in her previous novels, the writing in this one is very good & I enjoyed this story, but I have to admit that I did find it a bit slow moving. If you're looking for a novel with lots of action, this may not be the one for you, but if you're satisfied with rich descriptive period novels with a subtle mysterious element, this one should fit the bill.
Bookaliciouspam on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have read two previous works from author Sarah Dunant(@sarahdunant), and have been a fan of her style of writing and historical fiction for quite a while. Dunant is able to capture your interest from early in the book, make you fall in love with the characters and provide a history of a time or event while keeping the story interesting. Dunant also uses her platform (or at least I feel so) to show us the history of women in different lifestyles and professions, you always come away with a feeling of happiness the world for women has evolved as much as it has. Flowery language, and brilliant descriptions capture and transport you to an ancient time where you can actually smell the bread baking.Sacred Hearts follows a choir nun Sister Zuana, and a novice Sister Serefina through the reformations of the church in the 1600¿s, first loves, and realizations of what life really means when you are cloistered behind abbey walls. Zuana was raised outside the abbey by a physician father who taught his daughter much of his own alchemy. Having a daughter educated in medicine however did Zuana no favors, when her father passed she was forced to either marry or become a nun. Zuana grapples with her sin of placing her father in her thoughts and prayers more than the holy father himself. Serafina a novice in love struggles with anorexia by holy proxy, being locked in a convent unwillingly, and finding her true place in life. Events in the convent are constantly disruptive as the novice finds her place and learns consequence. This novel transports you to Italy in an amazing time for the church and women. The ending of the book is absolutely perfect. I would recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed Dunant¿s previous works, if you like Historical Fiction, if you are interested in women¿s hardships in ancient times, or if you just feel the need to read a beautiful story of love and life.
tara35 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Upon beginning Sacred Hearts: A Novel, I didn't imagine that I'd find myself completely wrapped up in this story about an Italian convent in the 1500s, but I absolutely was. Sacred Hearts focuses on a period of time during which dowries were so high that families were perhaps only able to afford to marry off one daughter, and the other or others would be placed in a convent. Serafina is one of these young women, who has been placed into the convent of Santa Caterina against her will. She has arrived at the convent after an unapproved love affair and her story is full of all the passion of youth and young love. Her anger and grief are overwhelming when she finds herself suddenly living in what is essentially, a prison. One of the sisters, Suora Zuana, is touched by Serafina and attempts to make her more comfortable as she adapts to convent life. Zuana is a fascinating character and much of the story is told from her perspective. Thanks to her father, Zuana is knowledgeable about diseases and cures and her work at the convent is as the dispensary mistress, sort of a combination of physician, nurse, and pharmacist.Sarah Dunant has created an amazing world within the pages of Sacred Hearts. As a reader, I felt so powerfully the sense of isolation these women must have felt, living in the middle of a city but unable to see outside the walls of the convent. Just as in the world of a convent, there are no men that even speak in this book besides a few words from the bishop. Because of all this, I felt almost as a voyeur, being able to see inside the world of these nuns. For some the convent seems a prison, at least at first. For others, the convent serves as a refuge, the only place to go once they are released from an unhappy life. For a few, they came to the convent because they were called. I enjoyed this book very much, and then I heard a story that made me appreciate it even more. There is a woman that I work with that I often discuss books with. I was telling her about this book and when I finished she told me that it sounded like her mother's life who grew up in the 1950s. It was tradition in her Catholic family that one child would be 'given' to the church and she was chosen by her mother perhaps because she was favored by her father. She stayed with the convent for a number of years, until she suffered an nervous breakdown because she was so unhappy. When she was finally able to leave the convent she was treated so terribly in her small town for the 'shameful' thing she had done she had to move away. Her life did have some happiness, but ultimately ended in tragedy, her daughter suspects from the guilt she felt from leaving the convent. All this to say, that throughout history, oftentimes women's lives were not their own to live, to make choices about, to enjoy.Many thanks to Librarything's Early Reviewer program for this review copy.
SaraPoole on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At once claustrophobic and expansive, ¿Sacred Hearts¿ is a riveting exploration of the lives of cloistered nuns in 16th century Ferrera, Italy. Dunant¿s impeccable research reveals a fact that is nothing short of stunning in its implications¿at this time, fully half of all noblewomen were relegated to convents by families unwilling to pay the exorbitant costs of dowries for them or for other reasons. The social effects must have been extraordinary but Dunant, rightly enough, focuses primarily on the lives of two fascinating women¿the young, very unwilling novice Serafina determined to be reunited with the man she loves, and the compassionate healer Suora Zuana who is reconciled to life in the convent as the price she must pay for using skills that would be rejected in the outside world. Dunant has a gift for selecting unlikely characters and settings to illuminate fundamental truths about human nature and here she does not disappoint. The fictional convent of Santa Caterina and its inhabitants come vividly to life, as does the world surrounding them. The result is a story that both fascinates and repels even as it remains unforgettable.
reannon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most unique books I've ever read. Have never read anything like this and don't expect I ever will again. It is set in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara, Italy in the year 1570.The main character is Suara Zuana, the nun in charge of the dispensary and the infirmary. She became a nun after her father died, the father who had taught her medicine. There was no place else for her to go, and she entered with some rebelliousness in her heart. In the seventeen years since, she has become resigned and even grateful. Yet when a novice enters who is hysterical with her grief at being parted from her love, and rebellious, she is sympathetic. What follows upends the convent.The author in a note reveals that at the time, in Italy, dowries had gotten so high that noble families married as few of their daughters as possible. The rest were forced into nunneries.Dunant shows us this world, where there are almost no contact with men, where some women immersed themselves in the piety, that included services throughout the day so there was always a shortage of sleep, and others found some way to reconcile them with the life they were forced into. The special few become mystics.It is an odd book in that we are so used books and visual media where non-stop action has become the default. It makes it hard to adjust to the pacing of this book. However, once one adjusts to it, one is immersed in a world long past and far removed from today's life. It won't be to all tastes, but it is a powerful book that I was happy to have read.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't know quite what to expect from this novel about 16th century convent life. I really like good historical fiction, but the convent setting wasn't all that appealing. I'm so glad I read it anyway.This was a wonderful & thought-provoking book. The characters (even the minor ones) are fully fleshed. The setting is used to the greatest advantage in the telling of the story - the claustrophobia of it, the beauty of it, the sense of the town & the outside world pressing against the convent walls. I loved learning about the day-to-day lives of these nuns & the ways they learned to live fully (or not so fully) in their world. The story of the dispensary sister, her garden, her remedies (learned from her doctor father) was also fascinating - I loved learning about how all kinds of cures were made. It's interesting to note how many of these cures are still in use today in one form or another.It is sobering to note that many of these women were walled up in convents against their will, to increase the dowries of a sibling or because they were disfigured, or just not very pretty, or not very smart or - perhaps worst of all - far too smart & talented. We've certainly come a long way. & yet despite the narrow confines of the nunnery & the narrowly defined roles assigned to these women they created full & rich lives & found ways to govern themselves, to make music & art, & to in many ways remove themselves from the world of men.This was a moving story & a fascinating look into another world. Highly recommended.