Sarah Dunant's first historical novel, The Birth of Venus, captured my attention right away with one of the best openings I've ever read. I picked up Sacred Hearts hoping for something equally brilliant. While I enjoyed the book, it is not one that will make your heart race; instead, you should immerse yourself in it, let it surround you so you are living with the nuns, at their pace. Enjoy the opportunity to sink into another life and time.
Set in Florence in 1570, Sacred Hearts takes place within the walls of a convent. Young Serafina has been banished there by her family, to keep her from the man she loves. She is furious, and determined to escape.
Suora (Sister) Zuana is the convent's dispensary mistress, their only healer. She sees in Serafina more than just an unwilling novice. Though she carries out her duties (novices who wail through the night are sedated), Zuana's own troubling thoughts are rekindled. An educated woman with no dowry, she had no choice but to enter the convent. Her active mind clashes with the philosophy of convent life, and so she has had to dampen many of her more critical instincts.
Serafina arrives at a time when change is rocking the convent, the city, and the continent. There are many calling for stricter rules in these houses built for women and maintained by them. Abbess Madonna Chiara, Zuana's old friend, walks a fine line between hobbling her flock and appeasing the more radical members like Suora Umiliana, who believes they have a saint living among them.
All this excitement is tempered by the sedate atmosphere of convent life. Dunant has done an excellent job of crafting their world apart from the world. The convent is an insular place, where peace is maintained through quiet and routine. The disorder Serafina brings sends ripples through the convent, creating opportunities for some, and trapping others. The historical context of Florence in the early 1570s plays a large role in how the convent will, ultimately, change.
As for Serafina, her focus is solely on the man she loves. Her feverish desire turns to despair when their plans fall through, and the fever begins to consume her. Umiliana urges her on—deprivation will bring her closer to God, she insists, against Zuana's medical opinion.
The novel is a tapestry depicting the fight for balance and supremacy, woven with the threads of God, science, authority, family, love, and community.
Sacred Hearts makes it possible to both love and hate the convent system. Women enter for many reasons—poverty, tradition, disfigurement or disability, lack of a husband, to escape a bad husband, or even the opportunity for a different kind of freedom. Had Zuana married, she would be a wife and mother with no time to pursue her studies. Madonna Chiara has become a successful leader and politician, dealing with Church officials and the wealthy and powerful families of the nuns. The convent frees them of society's usual demands, creating a space for them to grow in other ways.
At the same time, there is much to rail against. Many of these women have been victims of society. Many, like Serafina, are not given a choice about entering the convent. Many fear the boredom—what is there to do for the rest of your life, trapped behind the walls? Add the usual feminist complains about religion (Chaiara is Abbess, but only a male priest can conduct services and give them the Eucharist.) and it sounds unbearable.
Dunant addresses this complaints in subtle ways, adhering more closely to the matters that concerned the women of the time. My fellow atheists may always be uncomfortable with topics like these, but Sacred Hearts affords us all a rare glimpse into the circumstances of these women.