Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sacred Hearts

Serafina, the new novice and unwilling bride of Christ has the voice of an angel and seems to be God’s gift to the Convent of Santa Caterina. But she is locked up behind the walls and separated from her one true love because her parents cannot afford to dower more than one daughter. Similar fates are shared by other young aristocratic Italian women of the mid-1500’s as costly marriage contracts leave few options for the bride’s female siblings. When the parental purse runs dry the phrase “get thee to a nunnery,” takes on a sinister meaning and Serafina becomes a sacrificial offering to the Catholic Church.

Sarah Dunant’s latest work of historical fiction provides a glimpse behind convent walls where women of God play political games as readily as they pray. Power figures in the cloister include a sister who may be a saint, the abbess leading her flock for  God’s glory, the fundamentalist novice mistress, and the vocally gifted Serafina. The most interesting character by far is Sister Zuana (her father was a famous physician - she has hidden his books to use for reference – some books that perhaps include heresy) the nun tasked with caring for the sick. 

When Serafina assists in the infirmary Sister Zuana learns more about the novice’s tragic but all too familiar story. The older nun has a crisis of conscious as she begins to understand and care for the younger sister.

Serafina, the heavenly songbird exposes tears and divisions within the walls of the religious community. While her voice brings acclaim beyond the walls of the convent it is outside these same walls that changes within the Catholic Church threaten the sisters of Santa Caterina and their established way of life. 

Rich in both historical context and plot SACRED HEARTS offers readers a glimpse behind convent walls and into women’s hearts as some walk their freely chosen path with God while others are sacrificial Brides of Christ. Birth into Italian aristocracy during the 1500’s mandated a marital dowry. If the price for more than one daughter became prohibitive, families merely sent the other daughter(s) to the Church.  Christ’s bride price was much less expensive to the familial purse. Dunant’s book is a thought provoking study in the choices families make about their children; the strength,  blindness, fragility and healing power of faith; and the complexity found in female relationships.