four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Sarah Dunant
user_rating: 
0

A-Sacred HeartsSarah Dunant is the author of the internationally best-selling novels The Birth of Venus ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2004) and In the Company of the Courtesan ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2006), among others. With Sacred Hearts, Dunant completes her trilogy of novels set during the tumultuous Italian Renaissance.

The Story: In the northern Italian city of Ferrara, within carefully guarded walls, lies the renowned Benedictine convent of Santa Caterina. The year is 1570, a time when noblemen commonly sell their younger daughters into convent life rather than pay an additional, and exorbitant, marriage dowry. Dunant explores the lives of these women who were thrust, many unwillingly, into a life of chastity and obedience. At its core, however, Sacred Hearts relates the story of an unusual friendship between Serafina, the mutinous novice with an extraordinary singing voice, and Suora Zuana, the skilled head of the dispensary, who remembers her agonizing introduction to cloistered life many years ago.
Random House. 432 Pages. $25. ISBN: 9781400063826

Daily Mail (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The story becomes a gripping thriller played out against a political battle between rival factions among the nuns. ... Dunant, wisely opting for modern dialogue rather than cod-Renaissance, heartbreakingly imparts the dread claustrophobia of a life sentence for girls who've barely begun to live." John Harding

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Through the twists and turns of events, the reader is never allowed to forget the importance of this one girl's destiny, nor is the sense of suspense ever allowed to slacken. ... Sacred Hearts masterfully creates a world and that smaller place within it which attempts to offer sanctuary, rather than mere imprisonment, to the women inside its walls." Donna Leon

January Magazine 4 of 5 Stars
"Sacred Hearts is a jewel of a novel. ... [A] big, robust, showy diamond that will hold its own with any going." Monica Stark

Metro (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Although over-coloured at times, the plot exerts a compulsive hold, and Dunant's insights into history and the possible effects of a religious lifestyle make this fascinating." Tina Jackson

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Her painstaking portrait of this world, both its delights and its privations, is part of the pleasure of her story. ... Dunant's masterful portrait of both a time and a troubled adolescent's struggles builds the tension, as both the fate of Serafina and of the convent's way of life hangs in the balance." Mary Ann Gwinn

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"It's a battle of wits, feminine duplicity and politics of a kind that readers adore. ... [T]he power of Dunant's imagination, the vigour of her scholarship and the lucidity of her style make this a novel that, in addressing unfashionable questions about the price of religious faith, is as intelligent as it is enjoyable." Amanda Craig

Times (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[L]ike any Renaissance masterpiece, its true beauty lies in the detail: the light and shade, the flashes of colour, the different messages conveyed by the careful positioning of the various protagonists. ... Dunant's writing is fluid, vibrant and skillfully calibrated to carry the drama, unflagging, towards its thrilling conclusion." Sarah Vine

Critical Summary

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.