"Sacred Hearts" by Sarah Dunant

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Take up Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, and enter a convent in medieval Ferrara, and follow the lives of nuns who strive to be next to Jesus, hoping for inspiration, or better yet, to be transported completely out of themselves in spiritual ecstasy. In this full, memorable tale, they also grapple with each other in the more worldly arena of deceit, rebellion, and betrayal.

Yes, this is a microcosm, brilliantly realized by Ms. Dunant. As in her other novels of that milieu, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, she renders the lives of women in Renaissance Italy in high relief. I have read Venus and as good as it is, this is rather superior. For me, the characters are fuller, the plot more suspenseful, and the stakes just as high. The Santa Caterina convent in Ferrara and 1567 AD, form our setting. A convent enjoying perhaps its twilight of privilege, the nuns there still entertain the nobility with theatrical productions, and they have a deservedly high reputation for their choir. The choir director even composes music for the Psalms and other sacred texts. But the Protestant Reformation looms ever larger in the background, with its constant push for purer devotion, less ostentation, and removal of the Church – especially its convents – from the earthly realm. 

Enter Serafina, a sweet-voiced young novice whose father forces her into Santa Caterina against her will. Her background includes a forbidden flirtation, and she panics at the incarceration, as she views it, and creates a large disturbance. Suora (sister) Zuana, the convent’s dispensary sister (healer), inherits the responsibility of trying to orient the young rebel to her new life. It doesn’t work very well. The captivating, exceptional story that follows embroils us in the power struggle within the convent walls. On one side the abbess would maintain the freedoms and privileges so many other establishments are losing. She is threatened by the nun in charge of training the novices, who would focus the world on the glorious transports of a holy ascetic sister, who inspires the rest of the community with her pious zeal. Young Serafina catalyzes the conflict, and remains the focus of Zuana, whose point of view serves as the novel’s center.

The characters and events of this novel will stay with you. Ms. Dunant’s pacing is superb, and the story’s events flow as though inevitable. There are surprises, and shocks, and enough intrigue to delight any lover of internecine conflict. As odd as that sounds. 

I recommend this book to anyone interested in noblewomen in Renaissance Italy, in the practice of convent dowries, or in Reformation politics. But most of all I recommend this book for its spot-on observations of human nature in duress, for its lovely description of devotional chorale work, and for its lively, full description of an insular place at a remote time. For the first time in a long time, I find myself stumbling over all the thoughts I want to express about this shining story. Take it up and enjoy it.
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