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Jul 13, 2009

Book Review: "Sacred Hearts" by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts review by The Burton Review

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Random House (July 14, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1400063825
The Burton Review Rating: 4.5 stars

The 'Sacred Hearts' Book Trailer:

"Santa Catarina, a convent near Venice, is home to over one hundred women in 1567. But with powerful forces for change raging outside the convent, and with the world of the women within threatened by a new arrival, passions, hysteria, and conflict will come to threaten their very survival."

Honestly, in the back of my mind as I was enjoying the words of this book that I was reading, I had the seed of doubt already planted that I would be able to have the fortitude to write a review that could do this novel justice. Given the truth that on the outside, the setting may seem a bit bland to some - a nunnery back in the old days- 'how exciting can that be?'- I was intrigued, enthralled, engrossed with everything that went on within those convent walls.

And there is not a wide cast of characters here. We have the abbess of the convent Madonna Chiara, the dispensary nun Zuana, and the novice nun Serafina, along with the additional cloister of nuns who add depth and flavor to the story. This is a story that is multi-faceted from the struggles of the faith of the women, from lessons on herbs and medicine, young love, stigmatas and on to the descriptions of what lengths the convent goes to in order to promote a woman's worthiness for God. What happened in mid-1500's to the unwed women in Italy is that they went to a nunnery. The dowries were so high that if there was more than one daughter in the house, they could barely afford for one daughter to wed. That is where the novel opens up as we meet the newest unwilling member of the convent, Serafina, who is thrust into this unknown world by her family who have cruelly abondoned her. Sister Zuana is chosen to be a guide for Serafina, though with all the strict confines and rules of a nunnery it is difficult for them to gauge each other's character or even ask questions of each other. Throughout the story we are touched by these two women as they each struggle with their own questions of faith, of their needs, of friendship, and how they prepare themselves for God.
"So that in the end the only real choice open to a young woman was to yell herself into crazed silence or, with God's grace, find the wit to turn rebellion into acceptance of what cannot be resisted. Just as so many others had done before her."

Serafina, a young woman, was in no way prepared to be forced into the society of saintly and religious routines, and how and if she accepts this fate is what the novel's events center on. Zuana is reminiscent of how she once was in Serafina's shoes as a novice nun unprepared for the abrupt change in the way to live within this restrictive society sixteen years before Serafina's own arrival. Although Zuana does not show outward compassion towards Serafina, she tries subtly to make her understand that 'resistance is.. fruitless', and Zuana is fully drawn to this young woman. We experience Zuana's whimsical thoughts of what life would be for her if she had not entered the convent decades earlier, as Zuana was also not bred merely for convent life to serve God, she had a natural calling to serve others with her expertise of herbal remedies.

Each of these women possess a talent that uniquely separates them from the rest. Zuana is the dispensary clerk and through her rare upbringing she has the knowledge that rivals that of a doctor, and is invaluable with her medicinal herbs for the convent. And Novice Serafina is young, beautiful, rebelliously in love, and is a song bird that outshines any other. The realization that their lives are meant for God is something that both the women think about and we are let into their minds to witness their profound journeys. Within these walls of which they are trapped they are required to conform to the strict rules of the convent. Even sheltered from society they are not immune to the religious reformation taking place and how their church believes that they should be doing more honoring of God then is already being done; things have the potential to get even stricter than they are accustomed to and simple luxuries that are already few and far between may be taken away right down to the Choir.

Sacred Hearts was well-written with its flair of nostalgia and historical importance as I found the writing to be fast paced within a slow moving yet suspenseful spiritual journey; the pleasing prose had me from the onset. I valued the small psalms, prayers, quotes that were interspersed into the story and also appreciated the fact that this was treated as a novel and not as an effort to preach to whether God exists and how we should feel about that. The rare criticism of the writing is that there were a few times when the story was being told through one nun's eyes and then we stopped the timeline and went back to the other nun and their point of view of the same event which was really unneccessary and disrupted the flow, but thankfully occurred only a few times. It was difficult to get used to the idea of the women being in cells, in essentially a prison, regardless of what they had wanted out of their life. It brings to mind the thought of how many women truly perished within a nunnery, whose life meant nothing to no one but themselves and God, all because they did not have the money to marry. There is an intriguing plot that wraps you up in the suspense of how Serafina reacts to her fate, as she believes that her only way to survive is to escape. And when she attempts that, her reversal of fortune is life threatening and shocking.

And as expected, I can not do this novel justice within my review for fear of giving away the whole thing.. but this is a must read, I loved it, and felt very introspective while reading it. I am blessed to be born in these modern days so that I can have the freedom make my own life altering choices.