Have finished Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. What a beautiful touch with words Dunant has! This book draws the reader into a leisurely, thoughtful, and ultimately compelling pilgrimage through the labyrinthine world of convent life and convent politics in the late sixteenth century.
Nothing ever happens in a convent, you say? Not true. At the time women were often shunted off into convents for no better reason than to save their families the cost of a dowry, and so it is with Suora Serafina, formerly Isabetta, torn from the musician she loves (a musician! horrors!) and immured behind convent walls. She is befriended by Suora Zuana, the convent’s herbalist and dispensary mistress. What a wonderful character Zuana is—an unwilling nun herself, she has found a hard-won peace in her garden and among her carefully-compounded remedies. That peace is sorely tested when Serafina’s screams of fury—and later her dazzling voice—and still later her equivocal visions—turn the convent on its collective ear.
I was particularly anxious to read Sacred Hearts because it’s set in Ferrara in 1570 (immediately following the ill-fated marriage of Lucrezia d’Este to the young Duke of Urbino, which is a story in itself), which is of course the same place and within a few years of the same time as the setting of my own novel. It turns out, however, there’s very little connection with the Ferrara of the court, other than a few mentions of the bishop and a glance at Duke Alfonso’s younger sister Leonora. The convent of Santa Caterina is a city and a court and a world unto itself, and as the shadow of the Counter-Reformation looms its nuns are a fascinating microcosm of women facing change.
Set aside time to savor Sacred Hearts. It’s not a particularly fast-paced read and certainly not a quick read, but it’s a lovely lovely book and will richly reward your time and patience.