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on 2 July 2009
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.
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on 15 August 2009
I was gripped from the moment I picked the book up and saw the ominous Historical Note - "By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply in Catholic Europe that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched - at a much lesser price - to convents...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.
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HALL OF FAMEon 7 July 2009
Serafina enters the Ferrara convent of Santa Caterina as its prisoner, screaming like a madwoman. At sixteen she's one of two nobleman's daughters, but there is only dowry enough for one suitable marriage.

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!
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on 6 July 2009
Fans of Sarah Dunant will not be disappointed! Like Dunant's Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, earlier works in what is now her trilogy of historical novels, Sacred Hearts has authentic roots in the Italian Renaissance. And it's a page-turner, a meticulously crafted story of love and devotion. Via a convent full of compelling female characters, Dunant cuts right to the soul of human relationships as we continue to interrogate them today. Dunant's young heroine, Serafina, is determined to escape the convent where she has been placed against her will. Through Serafina's struggles Dunant reveals the transformative powers not only of prayer but also of art, music, and medicine. She invites us to distinguish true spirituality from the threat of a rigid and dehumanizing fanaticism; to appreciate the vibrant life of women who refuse simply to obey; and to know both the ecstatic joy of song and the wondrous gifts of science. Rich with details that enable us to see, hear, and taste the city of Ferrara in the 16th century, Sacred Hearts is a big story with multiple marvelous crescendos.
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on 10 August 2009
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.
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on 20 January 2010
Sacred Hearts is the third selection for the new TV Book Club, so when I spotted a copy hiding on the library shelves I decided to grab the opportunity to try it.

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.
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on 10 August 2009
I'm really glad I read this book. Despite the boring-sounding subject of a nun in a convent, this turned out to be so much more. As a reader, you learn what life was really like behind the thick walls of a convent, how a woman actually had more freedom there than as a wife, and how ladies were encouraged to take up occupations of a sort, like weaving and gardening and singing. The writing is beautiful and reminds me of a poem. Sarah Dunant is a beautiful story-teller, and this novel of a young girl forced into a convent against her will, is a page-turner.
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on 15 March 2010
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!!
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VINE VOICEon 25 November 2009
Sarah Dunant's third book set in Italy at the time of the Renaisance does not disappoint. Like the previous two, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, we are captivated by wonderful characters and brilliant sense of place.
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......
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on 15 June 2014
This novel is set in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara in the year 1570. Dunant is a mistress of beautiful prose and in the opening pages she creates for us an image of convent life, apparently serene and ordered; but we are immediately aware of the currents of passion and rivalry that swirl beneath the surface.
In an explanatory note at the beginning of the book Dunant explains that at that time the dowries demanded from noble families for the marriages of their daughters had become so expensive that most could only afford to marry off one. The only acceptable alternative for any others was to become a 'bride of Christ' and enter a convent.
There are two principal characters. One is Serafina, a young woman, intelligent, talented and in love, who has been confined to the convent because she failed to marry the man her father had chosen for her. It is her desperate distress and fury that wakes the convent on her first night in her cell. The second is Zuana, the dispensary mistress. Like Serafina, she is not there because she has a vocation but out of necessity. As the orphan daughter of a doctor she has nowhere else to go, but unlike Serafina she understands that for her this is the best solution. At least it gives her the freedom to practise the skills she learnt from her father and to develop some of his ideas, though even here she has to keep certain of his books concealed. It is her sympathy for Serafina and ultimately her efforts to set her free that are the main springs of the plot.
For those reconciled to their fate life in the convent is not unpleasant. The nuns can meet friends and family in the 'parlatorio' and play with the children of sisters and cousins – the children they will never have. Santa Caterina is famous for the quality of its music and there are services and concerts to which the public are admitted. It is Serafina's beautiful singing voice which proves her salvation. But even these limited freedoms are under threat. The catholic church, reeling from the threat of Lutheranism and a series of scandals about the loose living of some of the monks and nuns, is determined to clamp down. The abbess, Sister Magdalena, is well aware that she is treading a tightrope and at the slightest excuse the convent may incur the wrath of the bishop and find their freedoms strictly curtailed. It is her struggle to maintain equilibrium between the various factions in the community that forms a second thread in the story.
I found my emotions deeply engaged in this novel but the most heartbreaking discovery comes in an author's note at the end of the book. Shortly after the period in which it is set the Council of Trent decreed that all convents must be strictly enclosed. From then on the nuns were only allowed to speak to friends and relatives through a grill; all public performances were forbidden; any windows that might give a glimpse of the outside world were bricked up and walls were raised to prevent any contact. For the young women like Serafina who were sent there it must indeed have seemed like a life sentence without hope of remission.
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