04 July 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Flap Copy from ARC:"By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so high that most Italian aristocratic families could afford to marry off only one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched into convents, and not all of them went willingly. Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

Serafina, a willful, emotional, furious girl, has just been ripped from her proposed marriage and sent by her noble family to Santa Caterina. During her first night inside, such is her violent, incandescent rage that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is sent to her cell to calm her with a draft of herbs. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal. And while outside the convent walls the forces of the Counter-Reformation push for ever more repressive chances, Serafina's rebellious spirit challenges not only Zuana but many other nuns who have made peace with the isolated life.

A rich, captivating, multifaceted love story, Sacred Hearts is a novel about power, creativity, passion - both secular and spiritual - and the indomitable spirit of women in an age when religious, political and social forces were all stacked against them.

This richly layered historical narrative provided a fascinating glimpse into an often-overlooked facet of Renaissance life. Serafina is willful, passionate and adamantly unwilling to accept her fate and a life in the convent. While she plots her escape and creates a web of deception that only her advisor Zuana can penetrate, the rest of the convent struggles to reconcile her presence and her rebellion with the potential for glory that her renowned singing voice might bring them. At the same time the abbess seeks desperately to remain a convent apart while the greater church invokes new restrictions on the tiny luxuries the nuns still enjoy.

I was engaged and invested while reading this book - at first I was thoroughly on Serafina's side; as the story wore on, I felt more and more for Zuana and her own struggles. By the end of this complex retelling of a star-crossed lovers tale, I was both happy with the outcome and extraordinarily sad for all of the women involved. I give Dunant and Sacred Hearts five stars and highly recommend it as an intense and thought-provoking read.

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