By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply within Catholic Europe that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched -- for a much lesser price -- to convents. Historians estimate that in the great towns and city-states of Italy, up to half of all noblewomen became nuns. Not all of them went willingly...
~~ Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant -- Sixteen year old Serafina is the one chosen by her family to go the convent route (there's a bit of family drama around Serafina's fate but I'll let you find out the backstory for yourself). She is brought to Santa Caterina convent in Ferarra, Italy, where she is placed under the guidance of Soura Zuana, a sister practicing the healing arts within the convent walls.
In the author's note, Sarah Dunant says that her inspiration for the Santa Caterina Convent came from the real life Benedictine monastery, Sant'antonio in Polesine - Ferrara, Italy.
At first, the relationship between the two is clearly strained, but Zuana seems to have a witty but quiet grace about her that often quiets Serafina's bitching. Though the convent sisters are excited over her reputation as a songbird, thinking of the boost to their choir, Serafina is quick to point out that she has no calling for the nunnery... in fact, she has a lover waiting for her to figure out her escape (this is not the drama I mentioned earlier btw). She looks at every day as just killing time until a plan comes to her. Yet, she finds herself drawn into the mysteries of Zuana's laboratory. See, Zuana's father was a doctor and was teaching her some things about healing here and there but how would she have become a doctor herself back then? When her father dies unexpectedly, no one in the family has the interest or means to take her in so she is sent to the convent where she finds she is allowed the freedom of studying and practicing homeopathic medicine on her fellow nuns, so in a way she's almost able to fulfill her dreams of being a doctor. As time passes and a friendship develops between Zuana and Serafina, Zuana starts to see in her new friend a smart (though hot-tempered) apprentice slowly emerging.
She would dearly like a little comfort, though. Sweet Jesus, she has never been so tired...For days on end she has done nothing but the crudest, cruelest manual labor: no rest, just another scrubbing brush on another surface, and then always more. Her limbs throb from all the rubbing and scouring and cleaning and lifting. Some mornings she is so exhausted that all she can do is cry; some nights so numb that there is not even enough energy for tears. Inside the workroom there have been times when the panic and fury have grabbed her by the throat and she has had to clasp her hands together to avoid smashing every bottle off the shelf.
(Lord, have I had days like that!)
Serafina then finds herself struggling with the promise of a love on the outside vs. having to leave her friend inside. What to do, what to do...
So my thoughts? Well, I had high hopes for this book, what with all the history. But in the end I felt like the plot development suffered in Dunant trying to get all the history in there. I love history but I cringe at history given to me in plain wrapping. There are SO many great stories to be told with history that I hate when it feels like I'm getting a big ol bowl of dry cornflakes and no, sorry, we're outta milk. The story started out nicely. I was interested in Zuana's medical efforts, I liked that Dunant tried to edge things up with a stigmata thrown in here and there... but something was missing. By the middle of the story, the edge was gone for me and it just started to feel like a daily log of activities til maybe the last chapter or two where it picked up again some ... but then the ending was a little anticlimactic for me. I've heard really great things about Birth Of Venus, another novel by Dunant that I've bumped to a higher position on my TBR list, so I'll let you know how that turns out. Hey, if you like your reading all atmospheric, there was actually a CD made to go along with Sacred Hearts, called Sacred Hearts, Secret Music .. just FYI.
(click on title to link to site where you can hear sample of cd tracks)