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Sacred Hearts: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – April 6, 2010

4.0 out of 5 stars 170 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Dunant (The Birth of Venus) revisits 16th-century Italy, where the convents are filled with the daughters of noblemen who are unable or unwilling to pay a dowry to marry them off. The Santa Caterina convent's newest novice, Serafina, is miserable, having been shunted off by her father to separate her from a forbidden romance. She also has a singing voice that will be the glory of the convent and—more importantly to some—a substantial bonus for the convent's coffers. The convent's apothecary, Suora Zuana, strikes up a friendship with Serafina, enlisting her as an assistant in the convent dispensary and herb garden, but despite Zuana's attempts to help the girl adjust, Serafina remains focused on escaping. Serafina's constant struggle and her faith (of a type different from that common to convents) challenge Zuana's worldview and the political structure of Santa Caterina. A cast of complex characters breathe new life into the classic star-crossed lovers trope while affording readers a look at a facet of Renaissance life beyond the far more common viscounts and courtesans. Dunant's an accomplished storyteller, and this is a rich and rewarding novel. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

British author Dunant expertly weaves the rhythms of daily convent life within the broader context of church politics and reform. Most critics were pleasantly surprised that a novel set in a nunnery could be fraught with such tension as they wondered, a bit nervously, about Serafina's ultimate fate. Dunant continues to create believable characters who were also very much women of their time. Several reviewers noted a sluggish beginning and occasional dry passages, but they believed readers would be rewarded for their patience. Ultimately, critics hailed Dunant as a skilled historian and accomplished storyteller who has written another engrossing, rewarding tale of the Italian Renaissance. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Random House Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812974050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812974058
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (170 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #487,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I didn't know quite what to expect from this novel about 16th century convent life. I really like good historical fiction, but the convent setting wasn't all that appealing. I'm so glad I read it anyway.

This was a wonderful & thought-provoking book. The characters (even the minor ones) are fully fleshed. The setting is used to the greatest advantage in the telling of the story - the claustrophobia of it, the beauty of it, the sense of the town & the outside world pressing against the convent walls. I loved learning about the day-to-day lives of these nuns & the ways they learned to live fully (or not so fully) in their world. The story of the dispensary sister, her garden, her remedies (learned from her doctor father) was also fascinating - I loved learning about how all kinds of cures were made. It's interesting to realize how many of these cures are still in use today in one form or another.

It is sobering to note that many of these women were walled up in convents against their will, to increase the dowries of a sibling or because they were disfigured, or just not very pretty, or not very smart or - perhaps worst of all - far too smart & talented. We've certainly come a long way. & yet despite the narrow confines of the nunnery & the narrowly defined roles assigned to these women they created full & rich lives & found ways to govern themselves, to make music & art, & to in many ways remove themselves from the world of men.

This was a moving story & a fascinating look into another world. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
Fans of Sarah Dunant will not be disappointed! Like Dunant's Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, earlier works in what now is her trilogy of historical novels, Sacred Hearts has authentic roots in the Italian Renaissance. And it's a page-turner, a meticulously crafted story of love and devotion. Via a convent full of compelling female characters, Dunant cuts right to the soul of human relationships as we continue to interrogate them today. Dunant's young heroine, Serafina, is determined to escape the convent where she has been placed against her will. Through Serafina's struggles Dunant reveals the transformative powers not only of prayer but also of art, music, and medicine. She invites us to distinguish true spirituality from the threat of a rigid and dehumanizing fanaticism; to appreciate the vibrant life of women who refuse simply to obey; and to know both the ecstatic joy of song and the wondrous gifts of science. Rich with details that enable us to see, hear, and taste the city of Ferrara in the 16th century, Sacred Hearts is a big story with multiple marvelous crescendos.
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Format: Hardcover
Dunant immerses her reader in 16th century Ferraro, in the convent of Santa Caterina, where devoted nuns spend their days in work, prayer and song, isolated from the temptations of the world. Holiness perfumes the halls of this convent, a group of woman dedicating their lives to the service of God. One would assume the usual human troubles have no place in God's house, but behind the thick walls and locked iron gates of Santa Caterina, human failings intrude on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the Council of Trent moves to further separate the nuns from the outside, fearing contamination from the world.

While the abbess, Madonna Chiara, weighs the implications of the Counter-Reformation and interfaces with life outside the convent, other personalities dominate convent life in Renaissance Italy: the fierce mistress of novices, Suora Umiliana, who heartily believes that starving the body will bring the soul closer to God; Suora Zuana, a healer whose herbs bring comfort to ailing nuns; Suora Magdalena, who is visited by visions in her humble cell; and Suora Perseveranza, who espouses "the music of suffering". All of these characters are impacted by the new novice who wails against her fate. Serafina resists her imprisonment in the insular world of convent life, a pawn of fortune and her father's will. Suora Zuana attempts to comfort the grieving novice, touched by Sarafina's palpable despair.

As in her previous novels, Dunant doesn't disappoint, breathing life in to 16th century Italy behind thick convents walls. In Santa Caterina, even the holy nuns cannot escape their flaws, exacerbated by the tortured days of the reluctant novice, who suffers the unimaginable torments of her isolation from the world and the man she loves.
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Format: Hardcover
From THE NUN'S STORY to IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE, from BLACK NARCISSUS to MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, novels about nuns have been an enthusiasm of mine since girlhood. The spare, contemplative life of the convent, the "marriage" to Christ, the drama of doubt and temptation: All this was inconceivably romantic to someone raised without a drop of religion. Although I hadn't yet experienced love or sex --- those mysterious objects of desire still hung in the misty, hypothetical future --- I was fascinated by the decision to forgo them entirely. It seemed enviably pure.

Pure is not the word that comes to mind when the reader is introduced to the sisters in SACRED HEARTS, the third of Sarah Dunant's wonderful historical novels (her previous two took place in Florence and Venice; this one in Ferrara) --- they are altogether more worldly souls. In the late 16th century, it seems, extraordinary faith was not a prerequisite for taking vows; often nuns were women who were simply losers in the marriage market. Perhaps they suffered from physical disabilities (cleft lip, twisted spine), or they were from families that couldn't afford to see them properly wed (in an Author's Note we learn that dowries had become so inflated that by 1600 nearly half of Italian noblewomen were destined to become nuns!).

Although some convents at the time were humble affairs, Santa Caterina, the fictional setting for SACRED HEARTS, is hardly a closed-off spiritual enclave. One nun has a pet dog; others write plays and compose choral music; all are able, on designated occasions, to meet face-to-face with family.Their cells, often containing such amenities as books, carpets and satin sheets, are cleaned by lay servants.
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