When young novice Serafina enters the convent at Santa Caterina, she is desperately unhappy and makes sure all the other nuns and novices know about it. Dowry prices for Italian aristocrats have risen so high that families with more than one daughter were forced to send the others to a convent. The convents were not as strict as they could be and girls were allowed to see their families, receive gifts, and make their lives easier, but there was no question that they were wed to God, and Serafina wants to be wed to someone else. Madonna Chiara sends the dispensary sister, Suora Zuana, to Serafina to calm her with her medical skills. The women form a friendship, but Serafina’s determination and zeal will not be quenched.
I enjoyed this book a surprisingly large amount. I loved the detailed peek into Italian convent life in particular. The pace of the book is occasionally slow, but it seems to match perfectly the pace of convent life, with the hours specifically devoted to work and prayer and not much in between. I was never bored, but actually spellbound by the entire book. The politics in the convent were fascinating; some sisters are in favor of new reforms that threaten to close off all convent life from the outside, even though this violates the understanding by which most women entered the convent in the first place. Others can’t imagine losing close contact with families, friends, and occasional luxuries, much less the prospect of losing the ability to hold concerts and plays. The drama and the manipulation that goes on to swing the convent one way or the other was fascinating to me, and these elements form the basis for part of the plot.
The characters were very interesting too. I’d never wondered much about women who were forced to take the veil. Serafina, however, proves just how frustrating this must be. Her determination and ingenuity make her very attractive as a character even as she complains that she’s been separated from the man she wanted to marry. I found her whole story to be uplifting and very moving. Moreover, Zuana’s interaction with Serafina makes her think about everything that she accepts, and her life is similarly fascinating and saddening. These women are at very different stages in life and as a result Zuana reflects on how she wound up in the convent and what she suffered. It isn’t romance, but these two women combined give a very interesting picture of Italian life.
In the end, I loved Sacred Hearts. I think it’s my favorite novel by Sarah Dunant, and I wasn’t expecting that at all. Highly recommended.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book from the publisher for review here.