Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Book Review: Sacred Hearts

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant is a novel set in a convent in 16th century Ferrara, Italy. While one of the stock characters of historical fiction of the medieval European period is the formidable abbess who exercises power and commands respect that women outside the convent will never achieve, the fate of those forced by circumstance or by their families into convent life is seldom examined.

The author says that her research shows that roughly half of the women of noble birth in 16th century Italy were forced into convents because the market for marriage doweries became so inflated that even wealthy families could not afford marriage for more than one daughter. Although convents received doweries from wealthy families also, it was more affordable. Girls who were disabled in any way, or not attractive enough, or too attractive, spirited, or intelligent were usually the ones families "gave to God."

Women "given to God" in this era were basically incarcerated behind the walls of the convent for the rest of their lives. They did not teach, nurse, help the poor or serve in the community. The choir nuns (from the noble families) sang, prayed, embroidered, or copied manuscripts. The lay sisters (from poorer families) did the everyday work and acted as maids for the choir nuns.

Sacred Hearts is marketed as a love story, but it is really much more than that. Dunant creates several very complex characters--the novice Serafina whose father beats her and forces her into the convent because of an unsuitable love affair; the Abbess Madonna Chiara who is a brilliant spiritual and political leader; the infirmarian Zuana who developed medical skills in the convent that would have been forbidden to her otherwise; and the novice mistress Umiliana who seeks a stricter rule for the community.

The transformative power of prayer, music, learning and community are major themes of the novel as they illuminate the motivations of the main and lesser characters here. Dunant emphasizes the value of a holistic spirituality as opposed to a narrow religious fanaticism that would starve the body in order to feed the soul.

I really enjoyed reading Sacred Hearts. It has a complex plot although the ending is somewhat telegraphed just before you get there. As all good novels do, it leaves you with a lot to think about after you finish it.


Gannet Girl said...

OK, I am going to try to find it. Your reviews are great. I keep meaning to do one on the Deanna Raybourn books and give you all the credit -- they are FABULOUS. High praise from someone who always reads the end first and frequently skims. I did read the ends first but they were not sufficiently illuminating and I also read every word of all three. She is an incredible writer and her characters are so compelling.

Guess that was my review. Thanks, QG!

Quotidian Grace said...

Thanks for the review, GG!

I went to amazon and found they were offering a Kindle deal--all 3 books for $9.99.

So of course I had to download it...

Elaine said...

This one has been on my list since I finished In the Company of the Courtesan. I just downloaded the sample. I didn't see the 3 for 1 deal. I would have done that and gotten the 3rd as well.

Norman, Oklahoma

Quotidian Grace said...

The 3 for 1 deal is for the Deanna Raybourne books that GG mentioned in her comment above. Sorry I wasn't clear about that.

But you will really enjoy Sacred Hearts!