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 Catholic 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 could 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.
Published by Random House, 2008