If you’re a daughter born to wealthy parents in 16th century Italy, you’d better be the firstborn. If not, you’re likely to end up, at a very young age, in a convent. Because of the dowry paid upon your entry, the Church is not particularly concerned about whether you have a true vocation, so the odds are high that you’ll live out your life there. Most young women grudgingly accept their fate, but in Sacred Hearts, Isabetta cannot. Her father has thwarted her romance with her music teacher, and she enters the convent a spitfire. Drawn to her obvious spirit and intelligence, the convent’s learned apothecary, Suora Zuana, takes her under her wing, and within a few weeks, Isabetta, now called Serafina, is sullen rather than fiery. But hers is a banked passion, because she and her lover have a plan.
Dunant’s characters are vibrantly alive and assertive, and they steal this show. This is an unhurried, gradually unfolding plot, rich with details of convent life and politics, a window into Catholic religious life during the apocalyptic Protestant Reformation. It is a story about women who know how to wield the powers available to them, and within their own realm, those powers are substantial. At heart, it is a love story, profane and spiritual, and in places, a blend of the two. This is a novel to be savored. Approach it with patience and a mind open to nuance; after all, patience is a virtue, and Sacred Hearts will reward those who exercise that virtue.
Check out this video for some great ambience: