213 of 216 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
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...
Published on 2 July 2009 by Paul Grainger
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A slow burner
Can't say I was as impressed with this book as other reviewers. It is a slow burner, nothing really happens until half way through the book although the wonderful historical detail of that period and the portrayal of convent life made up for the sometimes slow pace. Nevertheless a satisfying read.
Published on 15 Mar 2010 by M. I. Williams
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213 of 216 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant,
83 of 84 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not all of them went willingly....,
Serafina is sixteen years old and faces a lifetime of incarceration as the result of a forbidden flirtation discovered by her father. It is 1570 in the Italian city of Ferrara; the cultural flowering of the Renaissance is at its zenith, epressed in the glorious musical compositions flowing from the local nunnery, where her beautiful voice makes her a desirable commodity.
But Serafina has been locked up against her will. Furious, desperate, defiant and more than a little hysterical, she refuses to sing and is determined to escape. Hoping to diffuse the situation, and all too aware of the unsettling effect that a febrile novice can have on an enclosed community, the politically adept Abbess places her alongside another misfit, Suora Zuana. Raised by a remarkably open-minded physician father, Zuana entered the convent seventeen years ago after his death left her unmarriagable and alone; painfully, she has come to terms with her fate, and in fact recongises that her position as head of the Dispensary allows her responsibity and fulfilment that would probably be denied to her in the outside world.
Convent novels are ripe ground for cliches - hysteria, sexual tension, power politics and implied lesbianism. All of these crop up in the narrative that follows, yet the absorbing plot is firmly grounded in the alien yet monotonous rhythm of a demanding round of daily life - work, prayer and worship. Sarah Dunant spent time in an Italian convent herself as part of her research, and it shows. You can almost smell the herbs growing in Zuama's garden, sense the excitement of the preparations for Carnival and see the patchwork of rooftops from the bell tower. The writing is gloriously sensual - from the rare luxury of a marzipan fruit exploding in a mouth denied most worldly pleasures to the soaring voices of the choir in the chapel, the reader is drawn into the novel's world.
But there are darker undercurrants too - the risk of hysteria, self-harm and what we would now call anorexia, the human tragedy of half a society's women shut away against their will, and the looming danger of post-Reformation church reforms threatening the privileges and pleasures that still remain to the convent's inmates. The characters and relationships are perfectly drawn and constantly absorbing and, as the plot builds to an unexpected conclusion, it is often only in retrospect that the reader recognises the subtle but signifiant developments that signpost Serafina's journey.
This is a world where nothing is quite as it seems - beneath the veil of humility there are ruthless power games going on, and desires turned inward upon the flesh, in response to impossible spiritual demands and the complete lack of alternatives, drive some of the women into a looking-glass world where the most apparently virtuous are also the most deluded and dangerous. This was my first experience of Sarah Dunant's work; I shall certainly be seeking our her two earlier stories of women's lives and options in Renaissance Italy. A gripping story that will keep you turning pages and leave you with food for thought.
137 of 141 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars riveting - and her best yet,
Like Dunant's other two historical Italian novels, this is set in the Renaissance - or the tail-end of it - but where her first two heroines were bold rebels, the story is seen more through the eyes of a middle-aged nun who has embraced the cloistered life.It's a time of political and religious ferment Serafina's dowry to the convent makes her especially desirable, but she is also possessed of a heavenly voice which will add to the lustre of their famous choir. In time, they believe, Serafina will, like the rest, accept that convent life is preferable to the brutality of the world outside, and turn to the ideal bridegroom, Christ. What they do not know, initially, is that she is already passionately in love.
Stroppy and silent, Serafina seems reminiscent of many modern teenage girls, and many readers will smile at some of the scenes Dunant depicts. Nevertheless, she forms a relationship with the humane, scholarly herbalist Suora Zuana whose pupil she becomes. Zuana was the daughter of a doctor, educated and impoverished so that the convent offered her both refuge and intellectual freedom to experiment. A tension between youth and age, science and superstition, love and chastity is set up. The convent's all-female world is deformed both physically, in many cases, but also morally and intellectually, with religious mania threatening to break out over a mysterious old nun who showed the stigmata. Yet it also contains genuine goodness and compassion. Threatened from without, the worldly Abbess also has an enemy within in Suora Umiliana, a fanatic who believes that the ancient Suora Magdalena's stigmata are a sign of insufficient piety.
Inevitably, when describing a life of privation and routine, there are some less gripping passages. We learn a good deal more about Zuana, her opinions of sex and her memories of her dead father, than the fiery young teenager who is central to the plot. There are stomach-churning descriptions of foul breath, starvation and purefaction. Serafina's attempts to contact her lover outside the impassably sheer convent walls seem unrewarded until, 150 pages in, comes the moment that makes your hair stand on end. Gathered together to sing invisibly for the city behind a grille, the choir's "best songbird" opens her mouth - only to be effortlessly outclassed by Serafina's voice, "ripe with youth and sharp as a golden spear," soaring unexpectedly above it. Why has she broken her silence?She knows that her lover is in the congregation; but the convent believes their novice has opened her heart to Christ.
From then on, we're never in doubt that Serafina is going to do all she can to escape. It's a battle of wits, feminine duplicity and politics of a kind that readers adore. The comical details delight: the posh, indoor nuns whose relations smuggle in silver trays to act as mirrors and aid in the removal of facial hair, or the breath-freshener and cure for piles concocted and sold to bishops. Yet what you remember most is the painful maternal passion nuns pour into small dogs - and the intellectual ability directed into musical composition and a culture which, in 1570, is doomed to be utterly repressed by the Council of Trent. An excellent read!
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting - a must read!,Sacred Hearts
In 16th century Italy daughters of nobility were well married off if their families could afford sizable dowries, or they were shipped off to a convent to be brides of Christ.
Serafina turns down the suitor chosen by her family, because she has fallen for an unsuitable man. Her would be suitor chooses her flirtatious sister instead, and her father refuses to allow Serafina to follow her love. Her sister has a lavish wedding, but Serafina is taken to the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara. She is unwilling, sullen, and determined to get out just as soon as possible. All novices have the right, after one year in the convent, to seek audience with the Bishop, with the possibility of returning to the world, but she cannot bear to think of even waiting that long. She speaks little, stating simply "The words came from my mouth, not my heart" to ensure that all know she is there under duress, and her vows are therefore meaningless.
Serafina assists Suora Zuana who teaches her how to use herbs and to mix and administer medicines. They become close.
Life in the convent is enriched by the interesting characters of the nuns - the pure at heart, the rule breakers, the vain, the motherly - and Sarah Dunant brings them to life wonderfully.
Read this excellent book to find out what happens to Serafina. Highly recommended, and one to re-read.
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect Pitch,
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating view of 15 Century Convent life!!,
This review is from: Sacred Hearts (Paperback)I thoroughly enjoyed this. I found the characters engaging and well drawn. Not all were given much substance but there was plenty of fine detail for the "major players". I wanted to know what would happen next and how things would be resolved. It is a scary thought - to be sent away, often against your will, with no choice but to stay there for the rest of your life!
I don't want to give away details of the plot - as I find it quite annoying when a review merely retells the story! But I enjoyed the mixture of Convent politics, herbal medicine(!), religious fervour, historical background and the emotional stories of the main characters!!
Not too light-weight to be enjoyable, not too stodgy to be fun!!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic period detail, but plot is slow in places,
The book is set in an Italian convent during the 16th Century. It tells the story of a young woman brought to the convent against her will, as her family couldn't afford the dowry to see more than one of their daughters married.
I was totally unaware of this practice - I found the detail of convent life fascinating and struggled to imagine a society in which so many women were forced to leave their loved ones to spend a life locked away from the world.
"It is always hard, understanding what is being gained in the moment at which something is also being taken away. For such a young woman to appreciate, for example, the different meanings of incarceration and freedom. How while outside these walls `free' women will live their whole lives dictated by the decisions of others, yet inside, to a remarkable extent, they govern themselves."
The book was rich in period detail and contained many of those little facts that you just can't help sharing with anyone who happens to be close by. The characters were well drawn and I especially loved the way in which all the nuns had unique personalities, following the rules to a varying extents.
My only criticism is that the pace of the book was quite slow, which meant that the 460 pages dragged in several places. I'd recommend this book only to fans of historical fiction, as I don't think the plot is exciting enough to entertain anyone who isn't interested in learning about life in the 16th Century.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another 5* novel from Sarah Dunant,
When Serafina, a young, reluctant novice, is brought in kicking and screaming to the closed life of the convent, Suora (Sister) Zuana is called upon to administer a sleeping draught so the rest of the convent can sleep. A raport develops between Serafina and Zuana, that recalls Zuana's reluctant entry into the convent many years before.
When it is revealed that Serafina had fallen in love with an 'unsuitable' young man before her entry to the convent, we realise why she is so determined to escape.
Other vivid characters include the loving but authoritarian Abbess and Suora Umiliana, the sister entrusted with the education and well-being of the novices.
The life within a convent is fascinating and although it took me a while to get into the book, I still felt it earned 5*.
There is a CD of music composed to accompany the book. Sacred Hearts, Secret Music comprises music of the sort that would have been sung by the wonderful choir at Saint Caterina's. I have ordered a copy, but how wonderful to have had this to listen to while reading the book......
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Really glad I read this,
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and believable,
This review is from: Sacred Hearts (Paperback)I picked this up as part of a 3-for-2 offer in Waterstones recently, only because I remembered the author from presenting The Late Show on BBC2 many years ago. It was put aside for a long while, until I started to read it the other day.
I was expecting something hard-going and heavy on the historical detail, but the opposite is true. I was hooked after a few pages and found the book difficult to put down. The story is of a young girl, known as Serafina, who is placed into a convent in 16th Century Italy, against her will. She plans to escape to be with her lover, and most of the tension of the book comes from wondering whether or not (and how) she will do so.
Sarah Dunant really brings the convent to life, with brilliant writing and wonderful descriptions of the nuns' daily routine and the hardships they endure.
I have ordered the other two books in the author's Italian series, and I can't wait for them to arrive.
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Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant