In Sarah Dunant’s latest novel, the Bard’s “get thee to a nunnery” is an apt description of the destiny of 120 young women, for whom Ophelia-esque despair lurks behind the walls of the convent Santa Caterina. Set in mid-16th century Italy, Sacred Hearts takes the reader into the dank and dreary confines of a convent that serves as a virtual prison for those unlucky ladies bereft of a wedding dowry.

For Serafina, a passionate teenager whose romance is torn asunder when she is shipped off to Santa Caterina, living in the convent is torture; a spirited girl, she is not ready to go down without a fight. But when Serafina’s rebellion begins to influence even those who have reconciled themselves to the staid existence of convent life, tenuous relationships begin to fray and the peace at Santa Caterina is replaced with dissent and mistrust.

Dunant has populated Sacred Hearts with only women, yet interestingly it is the males of 1570 Ferrara who are clearly guiding the destinies of Santa Caterina’s inhabitants, as well as battling the incendiary Counter Reformation beyond the convent’s walls. The novel’s greatest strength lies in its ability to convey the intricate complexities of female friendship against the patriarchal rule of the times, with the sage Suora Zuana stepping in as a 16th century “frenemy,” the wise nun acting as both jailer and shaman, manipulator and surrogate mother to the woe-begotten Serafina.

Dunant is adept at writing the cliffhanging chapter, and also spares no details in explaining the painful, torturous rituals of penance followed by those who believe spirituality lies in leaving behind the temporal, and allowing the soul to seek wonderment in a higher power. Readers who have cherished The Birth of Venus and The Company of the Courtesan will embrace this latest addition to the triumvirate of Dunant’s Italian Renaissance novels.

Karen Ann Cullotta writes from Chicago. 

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