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Sacred Hearts by Sarah DunantTitle: Sacred Hearts

Author: Sarah Dunant

No. of Pages: 400

First Released: July 2009

Synopsis: Set in a convent in the northern Italian city of Ferrara in 1570, a time when fifty percent of women became – or were forced to become – nuns, Serafina was torn abruptly from her family and planned marriage and sent to Santa Caterina. Willful, emotional, and furious, her violent rage brings Suora Zuana to her aid. As dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana helps calm her down for the night. This aid is the backdrop for a complex relationship between the two women that waffles between trust and betrayal. Serafina’s rebellion is a challenge to the entire convent, especially those who have made peace with the isolated lifestyle of the convent, and forces everyone to explore the religious, political and social forces against them.

Comments and Critiques: We’ve come a long way, baby. It may be clichéd, but Sacred Hearts shows the reader the strides women have made in the world. I remain utterly horrified at the fact that so many women were forced into the convents. When your options are to marry the man your father tells you to marry, submit to his whims and caprices, abuse and philandering, I imagine the convent was the best choice for some. Still, that doesn’t make it fundamentally right. Everyone deserves the chance to choose their life.

The story revolves around Serafina, who had the temerity to fall in love with a man who was not her father’s choice for marriage. Rather than let her live her life as a pauper, as she chose, he opts to lock her away in Santa Caterina for the rest of her life. Her reaction at such treatment and at her incarceration is easily explainable, if not completely understandable. It evokes an immediate emotional, visceral response in the reader that continues throughout her experiences and adjustments to life in the convent.

It also revolves around Suora Zuana. Her story is a bit more complicated, as she was the only child of a brilliant doctor who taught her almost everything he knew. Upon his sudden death and with a dearth of close relatives, her only option was the convent since no one wanted a young, educated woman as a wife. Serafina may have been forced into the convent by family members, but Zuana was forced into that life through a severe lack of options for women. Neither one went willingly. They both struggle(d) to adapt to the lifestyle. While helping Serafina through her rebellion, Zuana recalls her own struggles and rebellious spirit and discovers that she wasn’t able to bury it as deeply as she once believed.

In addition, Ms. Dunant introduces the reader to convent life in 16th century Italy. Given women’s current freedoms of religion and speech and all other manners of freedom, the lifestyle is particularly horrifying. Rigid and hypocritical, stultifying and limiting, but all done in the name of God – it again is an area that makes the reader want to get down on her knees to say a prayer of thanks that women have come so far from this unenlightened time period.

Whatever problems one may have with the time period and the lifestyle presented, Sacred Hearts is very much a feminist novel. Serafina and Zuana must navigate a world in which everything is stacked against them. These two women, their struggles, triumphs and defeats make for a fascinating and heart-wrenching story. The reader is taken on an emotional roller coaster through their travails, made all the more profound by comparisons with current societal norms and female standing in society. In fact, the reader cannot help but compare the life for Serafina and Zuana with her own life. However, therein lies the attraction because it is only in understanding the past where women can appreciate current successes and focus on the next hurdle to overcome. It also helps the reader appreciate all women who were forced into such situations, admire their strength, courage and willpower to not just live but thrive in a society that was so harsh for women.

I loved this book. I found it extremely thought-provoking, so much so that I’ve carried the book with me since finishing in order to be able to flip through the pages and reread certain passages again. I waffled between horror at the lifestyle, situations, and societal norms of the time and utter admiration for the women who were able to beat the odds and thrive in such an anti-female society. The amateur historian in me appreciates the depths of research Ms. Dunant reached and the detail of convent life, music, pharmacology and other aspects of society that she brings to life. For through Ms. Dunant, Serafina, Zuana and all the other sisters are alive. Their Sacred Hearts live on and are dedicated to all the women who remain oppressed and shut away from life.

Thank you to Random House for the opportunity to review this ARC!

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