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Sacred Hearts: A Novel by Sarah Dunant: A Book Review

Sacred Hearts: A Novel
Author: Sarah Dunant
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Random House
Release Date: 2009
Pages: 448
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: The year is 1570, and a new novice has just been forced into the Italian convent of Santa Caterina. Ripped by her family from the man she loves, sixteen-year-old Serafina is sharp and defiant. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl’s cell to sedate her. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal. As Serafina rails against her incarceration, disorder and rebellion mount inside the convent, while beyond its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to impose a regime of oppression that threatens what little freedom the nuns have enjoyed. Acclaimed author Sarah Dunant brings the intricate Renaissance world compellingly to life in this rich, engrossing, multifaceted love story encompassing the passions of the flesh, the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship.

     My Review: In the Renaissance period, the price of the wedding dowries were  so expensive that most noble families could only afford to marry off one daughter. The remaining young women were sent into convents. Historians believe that in the great towns of Italy, nearly half of the noblewomen became nuns, and not all of them went willingly. Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts pays tribute to the women who were forced to go into the convent.

     The story is set in 1590, in a fictional convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara. The story is set entirely inside the convent walls. All of the main characters are women. There are a few men mentioned in the novel, but their parts are pretty small. The focus of the novel is on convent life and the women in the convent.

     The story is revolved around an unknown young novice, whom the nuns have called Seraphina. Seraphina is a Milanese noblewoman in love with a poor musician. She disobeyed her parents’ wish to marry a rich suitor, so her parent’s punish her by sending her to to the convent of Santa Caterina, which they hope because of the distance will break off Seraphina’s romance with her musician. The convent of Santa Caterina is happy to have her for Seraphina’s parents gave them a handsome dowry and Seraphina is known to have a beautiful voice that will help make the convent known on the music spectrum. However, instead of being pious, compliant, and dutiful, Seraphina rebels against the convent with a fiery spirit. Her rebellion disrupts the peace of the convent. The nuns try to get her the conform to the ways of convent life.

     The other main character in the novel is Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress. She is interested in healing. She finds joy and contentment and God’s love by tending her gardens and finding cures through her remedies. She is assigned to take care of Seraphina and looks after her well-being. Gradually, Seraphina comes to admire Suora Zuana, and she looks to her as a teacher. The two form a complex friendship and eventually comes to trust one another. Both of them are great foils to each other. Seraphina is tempestuous compared to Zuana’s calm nature. Seraphina is rebellious and tries to defy becoming a nun, whereas Zuana submits to being a nun and eventually finds contentment in it.

     Both the characters, Seraphina and Zuana are likable, strong, and relatable.  The reader can identify with Seraphina’s plight of rebellion and plots to join her lover. The reader can also identify with Zuana’s conflicted duty to follow the convent’s wishes instead of helping Seraphina escape the convent. The other characters are also interesting and complex in the convent life. There is Suora Umiliana, who is the novice mistress. Suora Umiliana is devoted to God, and believes that starvation and prayer is a good way to be closer to God. There is  Suora Magdalena, who is a woman of stigmata. She is portrayed as a living saint in the convent. Then, there is the abbess. The abbess is a business woman who seems to care only for the interest of the abbey. She seems cold, cruel, and manipulating at first, but then has a change of heart. Her only friend in the convent is Suora Zuana, whom she trusts and deeply cares for.

     Overall, this is an interesting novel about convent life. It is, in a way, a feminist story, for all the main players are women. The women are a team, and they each make decisions in which they believe is best for the convent. It shows that in the convent the women did find a sense of freedom they have enjoyed. The novel has church politics and examines how the convents were affected during the Protestant Reformation. There is a love story in the novel that reminisces Romeo and Juliet, for it is a tale of forbidden love. The novel can be slow at times. The characters were both realistic. They were all complex and were multi-layered. The setting was well-developed, and it symbolized that while it may look like a prison to people from the outside, the women found freedom to be themselves inside the convent walls. I recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in convent life in the Renaissance era. I think this book is a great homage to the obscure women who were forced to go into convent life.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is the author's official book trailer of her novel, Sacred Hearts:

This is an official interview of the author talking about her novel:


  1. It sounds like a fascinating novel, Lauralee; I will definitely add it to my 'Books to Read' list.

  2. Thanks. Yeah, I got the book at my church book sale, and I found it to be a pleasant surprise. I thought the book covered the little known history about women in the church life, and learned a lot from it.


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