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Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts

June 26, 2009

Holy crap, you guys, this is my 500th review on LibraryThing! It’s only my 281st(-ish) on this blog, but still… 500 books reviewed since 01 Jan 2006. Not too shabby!

77. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant (2009)

Length: 408 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Sacred Hearts will be published in the U.S. by Random House on 14 July; you can pre-order a copy from Amazon here.

Started: 21 June 2009
Finished: 23 June 2009

Where did it come from? From the publishers, via Shelf Awareness.
Why do I have it? I recognized Sarah Dunant’s name from The Birth of Venus, which I enjoyed. Plus, while I don’t care for religious fiction, I tend to like fiction (particularly historical fiction) about religion. Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about.

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 June 2009 (and not on my summer shortlist. Shame!)
Verdict? Keeper

Well-written, quite good,
and absorbing, so: Get thee
to a nunnery!

Summary: In Renaissance Italy, there were only three things a woman could be: wife, whore, or nun, and the condition in which a girl found herself was almost entirely dependent on her family’s fortunes. In many noble families, only one dowry could be afforded, so any younger daughters were shuttled off to live lives of piety and deprivation in the convents, regardless of their wishes or aptitudes. When the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrarra accepts one such girl, Serafina, she is rebellious and desperate to escape – the young musician she loves has promised to follow her and wait for her to be freed. The abbess assigns the dispensary mistress, Zuana, to calm the girl’s rages, and as Zuana recognizes something of herself in the spirited young woman, a tentative friendship between the two begins to develop. But all is not settled, for it is a time of upheaval – forces both inside and outside the convent walls are seeking reform in the form of further restrictions, and a re-dedication of the lives of the nuns to God – and Serafina’s arrival will set off a chain of events that will wind up shaking Santa Caterina to its foundations.

Review: This book was a bit of a slow start for me – not uninteresting, but setting up the world of Santa Caterina and the nuns that inhabit it takes some time, and the plot seems almost secondary for the first hundred pages or so. I spent most of that time sympathizing with Zuana and Serafina in turns, unable to decide if I most wanted Serafina to make good her escape and live happily ever after with her young man, or if I wanted her to settle down and find her happiness within the convent. Of course, I should have realized that either of these endings would have been too facile and not particularly satisfying, and that the plot, once it got going, had enough curveballs to throw at me to make the eventual resolution much more layered, and complex, and altogether more interesting – enough that I read the last 2/3s of the book (some 250 pages) in one afternoon.

Layered is a good word to describe the book in general – there are layers of story, and layers of emotion, and layers of plot, and layers of faith and politics. It was utterly fascinating to sift through the currents running through every scene, to let yourself fall into this small world where a few women hold all the power, set inside a larger context in which women hold absolutely no power. Durant’s storytelling is absolutely transporting, carrying you into each character’s position in turn, and making you take a hard look at yourself, and what you would do in each character’s circumstances. The writing, when taken by itself, is strange – almost entirely in the present tense (which is not my favorite), and jumpy in tone as it shifts from one character to another – but for me it totally worked, becoming so lyrical that it faded into the background, while drawing me even further into the world of Santa Caterina. (Oh, and by-the-by, while I complained about the typos in the early parts of the ARC edition, either they got substantially fewer as the book went on, or else I was so wrapped up in the story I didn’t notice them nearly as much.) 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Historical fiction fans will definitely want to check this one out; it gives a vivid and utterly absorbing look into the inside of a world that I had not encountered before.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Sarah Dunant’s website

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Before the screaming starts, the night silence of the convent is already alive with its own particular sounds.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 18: “If that were possible, we might have rediscovered the secret of theriac by now, and our dominion over all poisons would be secure.” – a paste formerly used as an antidote to poison, esp. snake venom, made from 60 or 70 different drugs pulverized and mixed with honey.
  • p. 46: “And if it is the sweetness of cherub flesh that pulls your heartstrings, there are young ones enough to coddle and nurture, either in the girl children sent to learn to read and right or in the newborn wide-eyed infants who pass through the parlatory on family visits.” – A room in a monastic establishment where visitors may be received.
  • p. 62: “But the closer they got to the room, the more perfect it had seemed: how if they wanted her for her voice (and God knows they were in need of it if that scrawny nun with her motet was anything to go by – far too much breath and thinness on the high notes), if singing was important to them, singing was what she would deny them.” – a vocal composition in polyphonic style, on a Biblical or similar prose text, intended for use in a church service.

**All quotes come from an Advance Review Copy and may not reflect the final published text.**

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2009 10:21 am

    I am so excited to see that you liked this novel so well! It showed up on my doorstep last week and I was so intrigued by it. I will definitely read this one very soon. Great review!

  2. June 26, 2009 10:21 am

    Wow, you’re a reviewing machine! Congrats on the milestone!

  3. June 26, 2009 10:44 am

    I’m so glad you liked this one! I’m really looking forward to it when it comes out. And congratulations on #500!


  4. June 26, 2009 10:44 am

    LitHouse – I hope you like it as much as I did. The beginning’s a little slow, but it definitely picks up about 1/3 of the way through.

    Memory – Well, considering that milestone is distributed over 3 1/2 years, it’s not quite so amazing, but it seemed like a nice big round number to celebrate. ;)

    Lezlie – This book has made me really want to go back and read In the Company of the Courtesan – the second book in her Renaissance Italy wives/whores/nuns “trilogy”.

  5. June 26, 2009 1:46 pm

    I hope to read this eventually. I know what you mean, though, I like fiction about religion but have never really read religious fiction before. Probably mostly of the historical fiction nature, too.

  6. June 26, 2009 2:29 pm

    Wow! I hit a milestone today too – my 500th blog post. I love your thoughts on this. I am also fascinated by what goes on inside convents.

  7. June 26, 2009 3:44 pm

    500 reviews in 3 and a half years is totally awesome! I’m glad to see this book is so good since it’s in my TBR pile.

  8. June 26, 2009 6:52 pm

    The book sounds pretty intriguing! I hope I remember it by the time it comes out.

  9. June 26, 2009 7:45 pm

    Oh, and congratulations on the 500th review! Even over 3 1/2 years, pretty darn impressive.

  10. June 26, 2009 10:27 pm

    You are the fastest reader I’ve ever met (or read from, I guess)! I think 500 books in three years is awesome. Keep devouring those books, you bookworm, you. *smirks evily*

  11. June 27, 2009 9:22 pm

    I’m looking forward to reading this book. And congratulations on your 500th review! That is an impressive number!

  12. Shanra permalink
    June 28, 2009 3:14 pm

    500 reviews in 3 1/2 years is awesome! Don’t go putting yourself down over it!

    And I too can relate to your comment on fiction about religion and religious fiction. *hugs* I’m glad to hear you wound up enjoying this one so much, though, despite the typos!

  13. June 29, 2009 9:13 am

    Kailana – I’ve only read a few examples of overtly religious fiction, but it was enough to know it’s not for me. It’s a fine line – books where the characters believe in (whatever) are fine, great, but books where I’m expected to believe in (whatever) are not for me.

    Lenore – Congrats on your 500! I’ve still got at least a few months to go before I hit that point on my blog.

    bermudaonion – When you get to it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Carrie K – Ah, you only have to remember for two more weeks. :)

    GwtB – Heh, thanks, although I know there are tons of people out there who read more than I do.

    Tiina – Thanks!

    Shanra – I love that people here think it’s awesome, instead of thinking “man, she needs a new hobby.” :)

  14. sdechantal permalink
    June 30, 2009 8:29 am

    Nice review. I love your blog! I’ll be back when I have more time to dig around. :)

    One Persons Journey Through a World of Books

  15. July 1, 2009 8:59 am

    sdechantal – Thanks! Glad to have you here. :)

  16. July 23, 2009 3:31 pm

    Admirable. I find reviews very difficult to write. I just want to get on with reading the next book. I read the first chapter of this book online and thought it might be good. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reviewing it.

  17. July 26, 2009 6:52 am

    I just posted a review myself and then started reading the other reviews. I really like your blog and intend to bookmark it for the future! I enjoy seeing the way others interpret a book and what appeals to them about the same book. I love historical fiction more than religious fiction as well. Thanks!


  1. Review of “Sacred Hearts” by Sarah Dunant « Rhapsodyinbooks’s Weblog

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