Sunday, January 17, 2010
Review: Sacred Hearts, Sarah Dunant. Random House, 2009.
Confession: I don't enjoy thinking critically about books of fiction. I read fiction for escape, for entertainment and relaxation. I don't want to have to think about it too much. (This probably explains my love/hate relationship with my English major in college.) So my review of Sarah Dunant's lovely novel is going to be short. As will most of my reviews of novels.
So here you go. Sacred Hearts -- I liked it!
Well okay, I guess I could say a little bit more about the book, if you twist my arm. Sacred Hearts is a work of historical fiction, which I always find fascinating. It's an entertaining way to learn more about a particular historical time period. So in this case, if I trust the author's claims of historical accuracy, I now know a lot more about late 1500s Italy than I used to. The story centers on a convent in Ferrara, Italy, and particularly on one novice who's family has put her into the convent against her will because of her illicit love affair. The main character, Zuana, the dispensary nun, alternates between wanting to help the young novice find happiness, and wanting to obey her abbess and do what she thinks is right in the sight of God.
The writing in this book is lush and detailed, the characters feel authentic, and the story is gripping. But the thing I find most fascinating in this book is the tremendous tension between politics and piety, and how the convent abbess must balance these in order to protect the nuns within her care. The abbess must keep the powerful families of the city happy in order to secure not only money, but also protection from other religious authorities who have threatened to cut off the convent's small luxuries and their connections with the outside world. I also find it interesting how the nuns have more power and more opportunities to develop their interests and talents than do women in the outside world. The dispensary nun particularly embodies this, for in the outside world she wouldn't be allowed to create medicines and function as a doctor, as she does inside the convent.
So all in all, I'm glad I randomly picked this book up from my library's new book section! I'm putting her Sarah Dunant's other books on my TBR list now.