Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God's protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.
Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant — young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. 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 between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, for whom the girl becomes the daughter she will never have.
As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena — with her history of visions and ecstasies — locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. As disorder and rebellion mount, it is the abbess's job to keep the convent stable while, outside its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to purge the Catholic Church and impose on the nunneries a regime of terrible oppression.
Sarah Dunant, the bestselling author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, brings this intricate Renaissance world compellingly to life. Sacred Hearts is a rich, engrossing, multifaceted love story, encompassing the passions of the flesh, the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship.
"[A] great read that throws a light in a hidden corner of history, with a bonus: Although written for a secular crowd, it never discounts the possibility of miracles." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Sacred Hearts is a testament to women who worked, lived and died in the most confining of circumstances, but whose essential humanity shines through in this absorbing tale." Seattle Times
"Although many novelists have successfully tackled the intricacies of court politics, intrigue, and romance, Dunant applies the same type of formula to the Renaissance convent with remarkable success. The author continues to chart the course of strong Renaissance women struggling against all odds to define their own destinies." Booklist
"Dunant brilliantly depicts the daily rhythms of convent life and offers an intriguing glimpse into 16th-century church politics. A rich tale filled with passion and the enduring power of faith, this novel is highly recommended for historical fiction readers." Library Journal (starred review)
The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God's protection. But the arrival of the young Serafina sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.
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.
About the Author
Sarah Dunant is the author of the international bestsellers The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, which have received major acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her earlier novels include three Hannah Wolfe crime thrillers, as well as Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, Transgressions, and Mapping the Edge. She has two daughters and lives in London and Florence.
Reading Group Guide
1. Imagine you were Serafina’s father. What would influence your decision to send your daughter to a convent? Do you think he was being cruel or practical?
2. Nuns—from Hildegard of Bingen to Maria in The Sound of Music—have always been the subject of huge fascination to
many people. What do you think makes them so interesting?
3. Do you see the sisters of Santa Caterina as prisoners confined within the convent walls or, given the harsh reality of life outside for women, do you believe they in fact enjoyed more freedom and creativity than women on the outside? If you were a woman living then and could choose to live inside or out, which choice would you make?
4. Serafina suffers from holy anorexia. Many people today think of eating disorders as a product of contemporary fashion,
celebrity, and pop culture, but what can holy anorexia teach us about the modern disease?
5. Which of the characters do you think suffer in the restrictive environment and which of them thrive and learn to manipulate the system? How do you think you would have responded if placed in such an environment?
6. Why do you think Dunant chose to set her story entirely within the convent’s walls? How would the novel have been different had she written more about the world outside them?
7. With Sacred Hearts, Dunant completes what she’s called her Renaissance trilogy, which includes her two previous novels, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan. As a trilogy, they paint the possible lives of ordinary women in the Renaissance. Why do you think the author set out to do this?
8. The relationship between Suora Zuana and Serafina is an interesting and complex one. What is it about Serafina that attracts Zuana’s attentions and affection? And what is it about Zuana that appeals to Serafina?
9. The convent of Santa Caterina is filled with an intriguing variety of nuns, from the powerful abbess Madonna Chiara, the
ancient visionary Suora Magdalena, dispensary mistress Suora Zuana, and the devout and ambitious novice mistress Suora Umiliana. Which of these sisters interested you the most? Which ones did you think seemed the most contemporary, the most like women you might know yourself ?