Thursday, September 10, 2009

Julie's Review: Sacred Hearts

Summary: Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus) revisits 16th-century Italy, where 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.

Review: Sacred Hearts is a novel rich is prose, description, characters and history. What it lacked for me was a story that I really cared about or characters that I could identify with and none of this has to do with the fact that it was set in a convent.

What I did enjoy reading about was convent life before the strict rules were passed down by the Council of Trent in the 1500s. Nuns really did have a lot of freedom in how they worshiped Christ and having contact with the outside world. I was surprised to read that they even drank wine. Albeit, not daily but during certain feast times they were allowed to partake of the drink. I also enjoyed the politics in the book. Someone was always vying for power and using innocent young girls to help them on their way to the top. This made me think, "Are we all just political by nature?" It seems that even some nuns have a hunger for power and they do it all in Christ's name.

I really enjoyed Suora Zuana and her role as dispensary mistress. I think what she did in the convent with her knowledge was truly remarkable. I wonder how her role would have changed with the tightening of the rules in the convent? I was truly amazed by the medicine of the day. Obviously, they didn't have the pharmaceuticals that we do now, but they did use more natural products to heal. Even the information she knew about the human body was enthralling and shocking that a lot of this stuff was known then. I'm sure as the Renaissance goes on, a lot of the data will come to light and be more accepted than it was before. I found this aspect of the book really fascinating and even "googled" a few things mentioned to see if they were still used today.

Whom I really liked a lot was Madonna Chiara, the convent abbess, aka Mother Superior. She was smart, worldly, righteous and even a little cunning when she needed to be. It seems that she was born into a family that had a long history of power in Santa Caterina and so it was no surprise when she was voted in as abbess. It is her steadiness that gives the convent a much needed guide during the climax of the story. She might not be the holiest, but she's human.

The other main character, Serafina, I didn't like and I didn't hate. I understood her plight but I also just wanted her to recognize that this was her lot in life and to grow up a bit. She vacillated between extreme anger/rage and piety, there was no in between and I think for most of us we are always in the in between, it's called acceptance.

What I wanted to know and never found out via the book, was how a nun was given her name because it's different than that of the one she arrives to the convent with? After, yet again using Google, I found out that it is usually the name of a saint in which they identify with. I'm not Catholic so I have no clue about this but it seems to make sense based on references in the book.

While this wasn't the fastest read for me, I loved the ending of the book. I think that it was perfect for all characters involved. Deceitful but necessary. I would recommend this one if you are a fan of Sarah Dunant already, but if you haven't read her yet I would start with The Birth of Venus. I have In the Company of the Courtesan on my shelf to read and now perhaps it'll be bummed up on the TBR list a little sooner.

Final Take: 3.75/5


Diane September 11, 2009 at 9:24 AM  

What a thoughtful review. I'll have to try this one and she what I think. Thanks

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