Sarah Dunant's latest novel is set in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the northern Italian city of Ferrara. The year is 1570. The story revolves around two women who had entered holy orders for different reasons. Serafina is a hot-headed 16-year old who had fallen in love with a man who was not her authoritarian father's choice as her husband, consequently she was condemned by him to spend the rest of her life as a nun. Zuana is in her thirties, the scholarly only child of a doctor who died suddenly and, with no prospects of marriage, was forced to enter the convent because she saw no other option. Both Serafina and Zuana struggle to adapt to the rigid lifestyle, and their triumphs and defeats are vividly portrayed. Sacred Hearts is patently a feminist novel, which compares the 16th century societal attitudes to women with those which prevail today. It is a very absorbing story, thought-provoking, sometimes horrifying, and very claustrophobic (all the action takes place within the convent walls). Whereas Sarah Dunant's earlier novel the Birth of Venus, also set in Italy, merely touched on the expression of feminine instincts, this one goes one step further, introducing betrayal and intrigue into a closed community where strong women can exercise real power, whereas in the outside world they had no power at all. The author brings her characters so vividly to life the reader has the impression of actually being in the convent with them. Five stars all the way.