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Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts (original 2009; edition 2009)

by Sarah Dunant

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1,2691146,218 (3.82)127
Title:Sacred Hearts
Authors:Sarah Dunant
Info:Virago Press Ltd (2009), Edition: Export ed, Hardcover, 480 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant (2009)

  1. 10
    Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice (kraaivrouw)
  2. 00
    Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (charl08)
    charl08: Similar theme Italy, forced entry to a convent and women's battle for independence.
  3. 00
    The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga (VenusofUrbino)
  4. 00
    The Miracles of Prato [MIRACLES OF PRATO] [Hardcover] by Laurie Albanese (saratoga99)
    saratoga99: Another example of once wealthy families without sufficent dowries who sent daughters to convents.
  5. 00
    Mariana by Katherine Vaz (Sakerfalcon)
    Sakerfalcon: Another historical tale of a woman who enters a convent against her will. Mariana is set in Portugal, and is based on possible historical fact.
  6. 00
    Lying Awake by Mark Salzman (derelicious)

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A closed society of its own--a 16th century Italian convent of Benedictines set in the tumultuous times of Counter Reformation. Women didn't have much option in those days--marriage to someone of the father's choosing, as a "maiden aunt" in the bosom of the extended family or life immured in a convent. We meet Serafina, a novice who entered unwillingly; she said the vows of novitiate with her mouth, "not her heart." We see the infirmarian, Zuana, who takes the young girl under her wing as the daughter she will never have and realizes she is not nun-material; the politically-wise abbess, Madonna Chiara; the mystic Magdalena, the power-hungry and controlling novice mistress, Umiliana [sardonic name--"humility"] and others. We live their life of work and prayer with them and suffer their upheavals and crises.

I liked the very unexpected twists and turns in this story of women with normal emotions--love and jealousy. The author imbued her characters with strong, often clashing personalities. As well as well-written, the story felt well-researched.

Highly recommended. I thought this one of the author's best novels. ( )
  janerawoof | Feb 1, 2016 |
Religion is very personal, and, very volatile. This book opened my eyes further to the religious orders of the 16th century. While the story is fictional, Dunant researched the book well, and wove a tale that could be believed to occur, or at least in some aspects, should have. The reality is clear enough - some of it difficult to digest. It is, however a nice balance.
I enjoyed reading this book, although it is an advance reader's edition and I found a few typos; which I don't think I've ever encountered. ( )
  jenngv | Jun 25, 2015 |
This novel grows on you. It takes place completely inside the convent of Saint Catarina in 1570.
At times it moves somewhat slowly and is top heavy with religious language. Still, it draws you in and paints such a lovely, detailed picture of convent life that I found quite intriguing. I just had to keep reading. This is the strength of Sarah Dunant's writing. ( )
  Smits | Feb 24, 2015 |
I read Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus over seven years ago and really liked it, so when I saw this title in the library of the cruise ship I was on two weeks ago, I had to read it. I'm so glad I did.

This is Dunant's third book set in Italian Renaissance. It takes place in 1570 at the Santa Caterina convent, a fictional community based on a real Benedictine convent outside Ferrara, Sant'Antonio in Polesine. Another convent in Ferrara referred to in the book, Corpus Domini, really exists, and some of the characters in the book, such as Duke Alfonso D'Este, were real people.

A fifteen-year-old girl named Isabetta is brought unwillingly to the convent. In those days, the value of a dowry had become outrageously high, and many families could only afford to marry off one daughter. Any others were often sent to the convent instead. In the case of Isabetta (who is given the novice name Serafina), she has fallen in love with an unsuitable man, her music teacher. Serafina is convinced he will come to rescue her, and initially she refuses to cooperate with the nuns. She's supposed to have a beautiful singing voice, which would be an asset to the convent choir, but at first she will not use it, changing her mind only when it becomes to her advantage to do so.

Suora (Sister) Zuana, born Faustina, was trained by her widowed father in medicine. When he dies unexpectedly, leaving her an insufficient dowry, and with no prospects (she's too smart and too plain) for marriage, she must also join the convent, but she grows to understand that she has more freedom there, as she is put in charge of the dispensary. Madonna Chiara, the abbess (in that position primarily due to the wealth of her family), assigns Serafina to work with Zuana. This doesn't make Suora Umiliana, the strict novice mistress, very happy. Umiliana believes the convent has become too worldly (servants clean their cells, and some nuns have fine furnishings and even dogs), and would prefer that members be more pious, even to the point of more self-mortification, fasting, and having religious visions.

The story alternates between Zuana's and Serafina's viewpoints. I don't want to give too much away, other than to point out that I tore through the last couple hundred pages of the book as the plot became more exciting.

In her research for the book, Dunant spent a week living in a Benedictine convent near Milan. In an interview, she commented on "the power of ritual and rhythm and routine" in the convent. My aunt has been a nun for over 65 years, and this gave me some insight into her experiences. I thought it was also interesting that life in this 1570 convent, in terms of its contacts with the outside world, was somewhat comparable to my aunt's experiences in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother married in the church adjacent to my aunt's convent in 1954 so that my aunt could attend the ceremony; in those days my aunt could not leave the site. I remember visiting my aunt at the convent in the early 1960s, but by the middle of that decade (after Vatican II), she could visit us. The opposite is starting to happen at the end of this novel - restrictions on contacts with outsiders, even family - as a result of responses of the Council of Trent to Protestant accusations and criticisms. Dunant talks about these more in her author's note (pages 409-410).

I also learned that the women's musical group Musica Secreta (instrumentalists and vocalists, including the Celestial Sirens), put together a recording, Sacred Hearts + Secret Music, of polyphony and chant from the era, including contemporaneous works by a composer referred to in the book (on page 280), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "the greatest composer of liturgical music of all time."

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to the cruise ship library. A longer review appears on Bookin' It.] ( )
1 vote riofriotex | Jan 24, 2015 |
Dunant has done her research. Historically, she's spot on—and her characters are well drawn and engaging. I never thought I'd say I thoroughly enjoyed what amounts to an historical romance, but I did. ( )
  AntT | Jan 24, 2015 |
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Book description
In 16th-century Italy, the convents are filled with the daughters of noblemen who are unable or unwilling to pay a dowry to marry them off. The Santa Caterina convent's newest novice, Serafina, is miserable, having been shunted off by her father to separate her from a forbidden romance. She also has a singing voice that will be the glory of the convent and—more importantly to some—a substantial bonus for the convent's coffers. The convent's apothecary, Suora Zuana, strikes up a friendship with Serafina, enlisting her as an assistant in the convent dispensary and herb garden, but despite Zuana's attempts to help the girl adjust, Serafina remains focused on escaping. Serafina's constant struggle and her faith (of a type different from that common to convents) challenge Zuana's worldview and the political structure of Santa Caterina. A cast of complex characters breathe new life into the classic star-crossed lovers trope while affording readers a look at a facet of Renaissance life beyond the far more common viscounts and courtesans. Dunant's an accomplished storyteller, and this is a rich and rewarding novel.

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The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God's protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.… (more)

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