I actually quite enjoy the odd historical novel. Perhaps it is because I am just in awe of how much research the author had to have done to write it; or the fascination in the differences between how we live now compared to then. Regardless, when I first picked up Sarah Dunant\’s novel, Sacred Hearts, I did wonder how interesting a story based in a sixteenth century convent could be. Very, I found out.
I will admit that I was tempted to toss the book aside at the beginning â€“ it gets off to a slow start and with the very descriptive language and incredible detail you can feel a bit bogged down in the beginning. But it is worth sticking with, because soon enough you develop a real interest in the characters and a real desire to see how things turn out for them.
Serafina is 16 years old when she is forcibly entered into the convent Santa Caterina in the Italian city of Ferrara. As the story details, it was common in those days â€“ 1570 to be precise â€“ for noble families to â€˜give\’ their daughters to Christ because they could not afford for them to get married. The much lesser dowry would instead be paid to the convent and the women, or girls as in Serafina\’s case, would join the convent. And here they would remain.
Serafina enters the convent in a rage â€“ she has left behind the man she loves, a man deemed to be inappropriate by her noble family. Plus her sister is getting married and they cannot afford two weddings. She is taken into the care of Suora Zuana, the compassionate nun who runs the dispensary. Together they get through Serafina\’s terrible first days and gradually build an unlikely but firm bond.Â The novel details their relationship, and the impact that Serafina\’s arrival has on the convent as a whole. Other characters of note include the formidable abbess Madonna Chiara who rules the convent with a firm hand; and the novice mistress Suora Umiliana who is determined to see ever stricter rules brought upon the nuns.
Although it seems unlikely, this book is written in such a way that the descriptions of convent life and the early use of medicine by Suora Zuana are fascinating. But the thing that really resonated with me was the thought of a 16 year old girl pulled from her family against her will, and virtually imprisoned for life. Imagine the terror of not only leaving the man you loved behind but the feeling of betrayal from your family. As a parent I cannot imagine doing that to your child (maybe ask me again when my daughter is 16 though!) even if it was common at that time.
Overall though I did enjoy this book even with the slow start and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good dose of history with a rewarding story to boot.
Available now: Hachette RRP$32.99