Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: Sacred Hearts

A well-researched piece of historical fiction. Unless you are cold stone hearted dead, this work will definitely have an emotional impact.I’m not sure how men will receive it, but most 21st century women will finish the book, take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and send prayers or thoughts to whatever supreme deity is in their lives with thanks that they did not have to live through anything like this. The story line is fairly straightforward: In 16th century Italy, the bride price (or dowry) for women had gotten so high that families could only afford to marry off one daughter. The rest were consigned to convents –along with whatever endowment the family could give to the abbess to take care of the unfortunate girl for the rest of her life. The life was one of almost complete silence, little if any contact with relatives on "the outside" (all letters were read by a censor before the recipient was perhaps allowed to receive it), plain food, lots of fasting, and life regulated in every aspect by the observance of the liturgical hours (starting at 2:00am with Martins).

Some women welcomed this life—especially if the alternative was to marry some man not to her liking—others were literally dragged (drugged?) into the convents totally against their wills. Sacred Hearts is the story of Isabetta, a young girl who wanted to marry her music teacher, but who was instead dispatched to the convent of Santa Catarina. The Abbess is keen to have her since she reputedly has an angelic voice, and the convent choir’s performances for the towns people and the surrounding countryside bring much needed patronage and money for the Abbey.

Once inside, we meet the stern, uber rule enforcing novice mistress, Umiliana; the wise, crafty, and holy abbess Madonna Chiara; the dispensary mistress Zuana, and several anorexic (in those days they were called holy mystics) ancient dying sisters fasting and waiting to meet Christ.

Isabetta, renamed Serafina, immediately sets the convent on end by such loud screaming her first night that Chiara sends Zuana to calm her down.Zuana herself had come to the convent reluctantly 16 years priorThe daughter of a prominent widowed doctor, who taught her everything he know about medicine and herbs, she was not considered marriage material (no man would want a woman so smart!) and with no large dowry or estate, she was sent to the abbey to live. Seeing much of herself in the young novice, Zuana befriends Serafina, (having to drug her first to calm her down) and convinces the abbess to assign Serafina to work in the herb garden and dispensary with her.

At this point, the plot twists begin. The book is to be published next week, and I urge you to get a copy. This is a superbly written story of young love, betrayal, mistreatment of women, women bonding with other women, and the horrible, horrible treatment of women by the Italian society of the day. While it is the story of the helplessness of women on the one hand, I must point out (with as little spoiler as possible) that it is also the story of the courageousness, talent, and cunning of women who solve problems themselves.

Many thanks to Random House for making the review copy available.

It would make a wonderful book discussion group read.


  1. I have this one here to read as well. Glad to hear you liked it. And thanks for linking to my giveaways on the previous entry. :-)

  2. I've read books and read of books from all societies that deal with women who find ways to cope with oppression of all kinds. This one sounds fascinating.

  3. It does sound fascinating.

  4. I'm really looking forward to reading this one, as well, Tutu. Just a few more pages of the one I'm on, now, and I'll get started. Your review makes me want to hurry!

  5. I usually don't read historical fiction, but this one sounds really interesting. Thanks for a great review! Will definitely be adding this one to my wishlist!

  6. Nice review! I also read an advanced copy of this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit! I'm glad you also liked it.

    Enjoy the long weekend!


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