Any reader of my reviews knows that I’m a sucker for historical fiction. If it sucks, I will finish it anyway, bitching all the way. If it’s good, I thank the fiction gods above. Sometimes it’s hard to find that good novel that makes an honest attempt at historical facts and attitudes while also maintaining an engaging writing style. Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts has it nailed.
I’ve read several of Dunant’s novels before, all set in Renaissance Italy. She has a fascination with women, art, and the Counter Reformation. This one is no different. Set in Italian convent of Santa Caterina, it explores the world of high-born nuns who aren’t necessarily in the convent for spiritual reasons. Because the price of dowries skyrocketed in the 16th century, many noble women were placed in nunneries at a far reduced price, imprisoning women who had no desire to enter a marriage with Christ. To alleviate these woes, Dunant’s Santa Caterina convent allows these women to be nominally nuns, but to also pursue the art of music, writing, and conversation. Amidst all of these noble nuns is Zuana, the herbalist in charge of the infirmary. Steady and faithful, she is put in charge of a troublesome, duplicitous, frightened novice. As Zuana struggles with her own beliefs, the structural hierarchy begins to fall around her as the Counter Reformation picks up steam.
Sacred Hearts is so well-written that you feel encased in the walls of the fictional convent, even a little frightened when you get brief glimpses of the outside world. You follow these nuns in their ecstasies, in their hysterias, and in their struggle to preserve their way of life from infiltrating fanaticism. It’s almost a shock when the novel comes to its inevitable end because it’s like leaving otherworldly sisters behind. Maybe it’s because I went to an all girls camp for 10 years, but I was comfortable in that women’s world, their haven from the rules of patriarchy. Whatever it is, I look forward to re-reading this book when I have the time.