Review of “Sacred Hearts” by Sarah Dunant

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Random House, 2008

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20 Responses to Review of “Sacred Hearts” by Sarah Dunant

  1. Julie P. says:

    I can’t wait to read this one! Thanks for the terrific review.

  2. Staci says:

    I will keep your wise words in mind when I pick up my copy to read!!! Great thoughts on this one!

  3. Pam says:

    Wow that was a very powerful review! It makes me want to read it again, possibly even review it again to give it proper justice!

  4. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, I’ll have to remember that this is a slow starter when I read it. Great review.

  5. At my book club the other night, I found myself fervently recommending a book that I knew in synopsis would sound like a one many readers would want to avoid as a “doom n’gloom” read. I said, “This is what the book’s *about*, but it’s not what the book is *like*.”
    ( It was THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO by Steven Galloway.)

    Thanks for the great review, Jill and the useful warning about the slow start. I’m a big fan of Sarah Dunant but reading the synopsis of this one, my heart sank. Glad to know I was very wrong. I’ve added it to the list.

  6. diane says:

    I can’t wait to read this one. What an excellent review! Thanks so much.

  7. Belle says:

    What a great review. I’m not big on historical fiction but I’m tempted to pick this one up.

  8. Nymeth says:

    Good thing you didn’t quit! If I get around to it I’ll try to remember that it’s worth sticking to.

  9. Celia says:

    Wow! This sounds powerful. I’ve actually done academic reading on convents in the New World in the 17th century, so this fiction take on the workings of a nunnery in Europe sounds like a great balance. I’m sure the author did extensive research, too – I might learn something new!

    Great review – you’ve made me want to read this!

  10. I like your advice to stay with the book. Sometimes that is so hard to do. Convent life is so foreign to me so this would be completely new territory.

  11. Bumbles says:

    It never occurred to me when I am discouraged with a book to check around with my faithful review bloggers. I have checked back with the person that originally recommended it to me for encouragement but sometimes I don’t remember who that was!

  12. Marie says:

    I’m so glad you liked it so much! 🙂 When I really love a book and someone says they’re about to read it based (at least in part) on my recommendation I always have to hold my breath and hope they aren’t disappointed. Yay! 🙂

  13. M Denise C says:

    Very nice review, R!

    Your evaluation holds true for her previous two books as well!

  14. Jenners says:

    That says something if it turned from a “might not finish” to a “can’t put down” in about 20 some pages!!! That is why I almost never give up on a book. You just never know. But, of course, if I’m 150 pages into a 300 page book and it is still bad, maybe I should give up!

  15. Matthew says:

    Possibly Do Not Finish to a Cannot Even Set Down

    Wow! Just because of that comment I am picking it up. I like book that redeems itself! Great review!

  16. What a fabulous site this is!

    I first came across it via Linda Gillard’s post on Facebook about her Guest Blog here, and I’ve just been browsing through some of the reviews.

    I found this one particularly interesting because of the opening sentence. It’s nice to have it confirmed that there are still serious readers out there who are prepared to persevere with a book. And it also demonstrates the usefulenss of blogs like this, which can give such timely encouragement.

    As I writer, I’m only too aware of the importance of the very first page (let alone the next 60 or so) when trying to capture the interest of a potential agent, who, in turn, has her/his eye open for something that will appeal to publishers, while the publishers themselves are trying to double-guess what will be flavour of the month for the supermarket book-buyers.

    It was the title that attracted me to read this review – but not for any literary reason – just that I went to a boarding school run by nuns of the Sacred Heart. When I first went there at the age of nine, I used to live in dread of getting a Vocation. The nuns told us that if God had chosen you in this way, you could never escape from his call. This seemed to be proven by the fact that almost every year, at least one sixth-former would join the order.

    Later, when I knew a little better, I used to cheer on the rare occasion when we heard of a nun escapingback into the real world.

    Although the book is set several centuries earlier than my experiences of being a convent schoolgirl, and things were very different in the mid-1950s to 60s, it sounds from the review as if some of the atttudes hadn’t shifted all that much.

    This review has inspired me to put Sacred Hearts near the top of my almost-toppling-over to-be-read pile.

    Thank you for the review and the interesting site, which I’ll be visting again soon.

  17. Toni says:

    Jumping up and down. I had heard some “stuff” about it and thought OH NO…. I loved one Dunant books and was not thrilled about another. I am overjoyed to hear your endorsement.

  18. Anna says:

    Glad to hear you enjoyed this one. I received an unsolicited ARC so I wasn’t sure what to think. Now I’m looking forward to reading it.

  19. Terry Schneider says:

    This book was my book clubs’ pick for October. After reading it , I have renewed hope for this group to have an excellent discussion. I thought this was a page turner and the story had the ability to grab my heart as I was reading. Imagining the absolute terror of being put into a convent against ones’ will makes this book a thrilling tale and well worth the read.

  20. Anne Adams says:

    This was our Book Group selection for June. I could not believe that such a thick book could contain a story about life in a convent. How wrong I was. It does become a page-turner. Will there be a “happy ending” for Serafina? I thoroughly recommend this book.

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