Sunday Salon ~ Sacred Hearts

sacred-heartsSacred Hearts is the third novel by Sarah Dunant to be set in sixteenth century Italy, this time in the city of Ferrara. Like the two earlier books, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, Dunant’s primary concern is the life that intelligent women were forced to live in those times and places if they wished in any sense to fulfil their potential.

Having previously explored the world of the artist and that of the business woman turned courtesan, this time the author turns her attention to the world of the convent where many women who might otherwise have found themselves bound to despotic husbands were in fact able to develop talents that might have withered in the secular world.  The price however is steep, the loss of liberty and the possibility of family life.

Sacred Hearts is set in the convent of Santa Caterina at a time when, historically, the Council of Trent had turned its attentions to the licence with which many such religious houses were run.  Although, at the time of the story, the nuns way of life is protected by a less than rigid bishop, it is not just those who enjoy rather more luxury than would be found acceptable under the new regime who fear for their indulgences.  Suora Zuana, the convent’s dispensary mistress knows only too well what would happen to the books of anatomy and medicine that she brought with her after her father death, should the Council have their way.  However difficult Zuana might have found her early years as a nun, she recognizes that in the outside world she would never have had that freedom to explore her calling which she has been allowed enclosed behind the convent walls.  If the convent is to continue as a place of learning and relative comfort then it is essential that nothing happens to draw attention to the sisters and the life they have carved out for themselves within its boundaries.

The last thing they need, therefore, is the arrival of Suora Serafina, a teenager gifted to the convent by her parents after she has threatened to disgrace the family by running off with her music tutor.  Serafina’s appearance causes nothing short of mayhem.  A spirited individual, she has no intention of settling to the religious life.  Her first evening behind convent walls is a memorable one for everyone within earshot and as the weeks go on there is no apparent change in her intention to find a way to leave the order and be reunited with her lover as soon as possible.  However, events conspire to make the recalcitrant novice the focal point of an internal dispute between familial factions within the convent and suddenly it looks as if not only her freedom but her very life is threatened.  It falls to Suora Zuana, with whom Serafina has developed some level of trust, to try to find a way to break a deadlock that threatens the foundations on which Santa Caterina’s community is built.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  Although the specific situation is fictional, I believe the general historical facts are true and the local and temporal colour certainly feels authentic enough.  I’m not so sure about the characters, who had a very modern air to them, but that is a quibble that certainly didn’t distract from the pleasure of the reading experience.

I’ve only read Ms Dunant’s historical output and at some point must go back to her earlier thriller writing and see what that is like.  Has anyone read any of those books?  And, if so, what would you recommend?

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Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 9:28 am  Comments (9)  

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  1. You’ve convinced me – I must read this book. I’ve just checked the library has copies but I would have to reserve one and by the time it came I won’t be living here – yes we have a removal date! Not a moving in one yet though!

    I loved The Birth of Venus, but haven’t read any more of Dunant’s books – so can’t help you with any recommendations. I think it’s safe to say I expect they’d be good.

  2. I really liked this book too. In fact, for the last half it became a veritable “page turner” for me! Many of the characters are so sympathetic, too. In particular, I became very fond of Zuana. And the Mother Superior. …and of course Serafina. I thought the “historical fiction” aspect was excellent as well.

  3. BP, does that mean that you had your offer for the house you liked accepted? What are you going to do, rent for a while? I’m going to look at what else Dunant has written and see if they might be good Christmas books when I can relax a bit. I’ve just been reading about the ways in which Renaissance Humanists tackled copying ancient manuscripts and my head is buzzing.

    RIB, yes, I really loved Zuana. I would have loved to have worked alongside her in the dispensary and learned what she knew.

  4. Yes – our offer was accepted. We’re hoping our purchase will coincide with the completion of the sale of our house – the vendors’ estate agent is positive that it will – but our solicitor is more realistic. We should know by 12 November! We may have to rent for a while but I hope not – two lots of removal expenses etc is not good and what would we do with our cat??? A cattery indefinitely or trying to keep her inside all the time – it doesn’t bear thinking about. If it’s just for a week or so we could stay with my sister-in-law or go on holiday …

  5. I expect your sellers are very glad to have someone with a definite sale behind them. Fingers crossed that you can make do with just a week’s holiday. I will get The Bears to send lots of good thoughts your way. They are having a party at the moment to celebrate Jensen Button winning the World Championship. They may not be up to good thoughts in the morning but when they’re recovered I’m sure they’ll want to help.

  6. I’ve yet to read any of her historical novels (though I have the two earlier ones in paperback and am sure I’ll get this one as well eventually), but I have read some of her mysteries and thrillers. I’ve really enjoyed them–set in contemporary times. Mapping the Edge is set in Florence and has two separate plotlines with two endings but tells the same story (more or less), which I thought fairly clever. I also love her Hannah Wolfe crime novels and wish she would write more. There are only three or four and I was just contemplating reading the last one. Hannah works in a detective agency–she’s young, modern, and not afraid of much–but also a very realistic character. She generally gets in over her head. I like Dunant’s work and really much give her historical novels a try soon.

  7. I tried to get a copy of the first hannah Wolfe from the library, Danielle, but they had taken it out of stock. I shall have to see what i can find second hand.

  8. I really enjoy Durant’s crime novels and have been meaning for ages to try her historical fiction. I really enjoyed ‘Mapping The Edge’ and ‘Under My Skin’ – those stick in my mind. Now I must start to read these – do they have to be read in order, Ann, or can I skip about depending on what I find cheap on amazon?

  9. Litlove, you don’t need to read these in order, they are separate books, no overlapping characters. My library is very short on early Dunant. I’m going to have to go to Amazon secondhand, I think.


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