Imagine you are one of two daughters in a nobile, but not so wealthy, Italian family in the 1500s. Dowry prices to fetch a "respectable" husband, with the proper family name and influence, were on a steep rise. For families that didn't have the funds to pay dowries for more than one daughter, it was common practice to raise one of the daughters for marriage and the other for a life in a convent.
An arranged marriage or convent life, which might be worse? I'm already trying to figure out how I would have been able to escape either. Add to this, the Catholic Reformation was also on the rise, and the few freedoms that nuns had within the convent were being stripped away.
Such was the case for Serafina, the young character in the novel, Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. The only problem was that Serafina had been raised for marriage. However, she suddenly found herself locked up in the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara, a far away place from her family in Milan. The story starts here with Serafina howling in her cell. The dispensary nurse, Suora Zuana, comes to drug her, if not into submission, at least into sleep.
Serafina, rumored to have one of the most beautiful singing voices, has been sent to Santa Caterina to join their already well-recognized choir of nuns. Sent so far away from her home and obviously not raised for convent life, Serafina's arrival is fodder for gossip. Whispers spread that some scandal is the real reason for her arrival. Her disobedience and refusal to sing, only adds to the gossip and disruption in the convent. Of course, there was a scandal, which plays a part in the plot. A life-sentence in prison, that is convent life depicted through Serafina's eyes. The main story involves how she does or doesn't cope and adapt to convent life. She eventually sings, only as part of her plot to escape. Will she succeed?
The story also shows how life within convent walls was indeed just like a city. Each nun had her specific duties. The bigger her dowry and the better her family name, the better "job" she had in the convent. The convent had the same problems, financial issues, jealousies, gossip, cliques, and political maneuvers of any city or state.
Besides Serafina's story, there is a substory which involves three other main characters and a play for power over the convent. There is the Machiavellian abbess, Madonna Chiara, who comes from one of the ruling families of Ferrara. How far will she go to keep her place in charge of the convent and to keep any news of scandal in the convent from getting out past its walls?
There is the fanatic, Suora Umiliana, who wants to purge the convent of all joy, frivolities, and freedoms, including those surrounding the convent's choir. She continually questions the abbess's deciscions and finally openly challenges the abbess's authority. Both she and the abbess use Serafina as a pawn in their power play over the convent. Will Serafina's disruption help Umiliana in her scheme to usurp the abbess?
Then there is Suora Zuana, the dispensary nun. Not of nobility, she was neither raised for marriage nor for the convent. Instead, her apothecary father let her learn his work beside him until he died. If Zuana had been a man, she would have continued her father's work in Ferrara. However, that was strictly forbidden to women. Left with nowhere else to go after her father's death, Zuana took her father's medical books into the convent and practiced medicine there. The abbess had always been a supporter of Zuana's work. Umiliana instead believed that healing should only be done by God.
Serafina becomes Zuana's helper, and they become friends. Only concerned with her potions, herbs and healing, Zuana has little interest in the politics of the convent, and has avoided them during her 16 years there. She is the character most balanced between the extremes represented in the abbess and Suora Umiliana. Although Zuana has always been a friend to and an ally for the abbess, she begins to question the abbess's actions in regards to Serafina. Will she involve herself in the power play and change alliances? Will she help Serafina?
I can't tell you the answers, you'll have to read the book to find out.
This is the fourth book that I've read by Sarah Dunant. (The others being The Birth of Venus, In the Company of a Courtesan, and Mapping the Edge.) I am a fan of her writing and love how she uses even the most subtle details, like chin whiskers or curls peeking out of nuns' headdresses, to develop characters' personalities. It's obvious that she has researched convent life and sympathizes with those who lived that life during those times, especially those forced to against their will. (The author dedicates the novel to these women.) Both the good and bad of convent life are explored in Sacred Hearts.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. I do have to say it wasn't my favorite of hers. Possibly because I'd rather read about a courtesan's life than a nun's, but also because I felt the story dragged a bit in many places. I frequently felt myself tempted to pass over some of the pages, those detailing convent life or Zuana's work in medicine, and fast forward to the action. There is plenty of action with Serafina and her plans to escape and with the power play between the abbess and Umiliana, but it was dulled by the descriptions of convent life. I continued reading through those pages because I wanted to find out what happened to Serafina and Zuana - my favorite character in the novel. The last 200 pages moved along more easily and interestingly than the first. One thing is certain, the book left me grateful that I am free to choose my own path in life.
This post is part of the Italy in Books 2011 Reading Challenge. Check out other reviews on books based in Italy: February's Italy in Books Challenge.
If you'd like to join the reading challenge, it isn't too late: Italy in Books Reading Challenge 2011. There are prizes involved! Each month the reviews are included in a random drawing. Last month, my review was picked, and I won an autographed copy of Ask Me if I'm Happy by Kimbery Menozzi. I will be reading it and reviewing it shortly.
Have you read Sacred Hearts? What did you think of the book? What would you do if your only options were an arranged marriage or convent life? Which option sounds less dreadful to you?
This month I wanted to go to Venice for the Italy in Books reading challenge. Could this have something to do with my upcoming trip to Venice, for Carnevale? Maybe so. The book I chose to take me there was The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato.
The Glassblower of Venice begins in 1681 with Corradino Manin, the great maestro of Venetian glassblowers, returning to his birth city from abroad. He reenters his city at night dressed in all black, except for his white bauta mask, setting the tone for the chapter and the story. He drops off a book and money at an orphanage, which is obviously intended for one specific girl, and waits, knowing he will be murdered soon. The last question he asks before the murderer sticks a Venetian glass knife into him is, "Will Leonora be safe?" The questions and the mystery begin....Who killed him? Why? Who is Leonora? What is so important about the book he left behind?
The next chapter finds us in present-day England with Nora, (short for Leonora). She's newly divorced and hoping to find a new life in Venice. She moves to Venice, the place of her birth and the home of her deceased father. Leonora plans to become a glassblower like her ancestor, Corradino. She is successful, initally because of her name, and becomes the first woman glassblower in Venice.
The mystery surrounding Corradino surfaces to cause Leonora problems, and ultimately her job. She searches for all the information on Corradino and his death, certain it will clear both her and Corradino's name. The chapters switch between Corradino's life in Venice during the 1600s and Leonora's in present-day Venice, and the mystery behind Corradino and his death unfolds. Also, once in Venice, Leonora finds a love interest (Being in Venice, one MUST have a love interest) which provides more conflicts to the story and to Leonora's life. By the end of the book, the mystery is solved and Leonora's life has changed.
I was sad to find that Corradino Manin is an entirely fictional character, although plenty of history on Venice and the art of glassblowing is infused into the story. We also get information on the Venetian Republic and Venice's Council of Ten from the 1600s.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. What I liked most was how the lives and talents of these two ancestors were similar and become intertwined, even though they lived centuries apart. Leonora is the main character, but I was more drawn to Corradino. At times, even Leonora was more concerned with him than herself, her own father, or her lover. Set in one of my favorite cities, it's quite an easy read involving mystery, love, and some Venetian history. If you are interested in Venetian glassblowing, in a fictional setting, the book could also interest you.
From the story, the book gives me a better appreciation for the art of glassblowing. Sometimes the art gets lost behind all the bobbles for sale in the touristy souvenir shops throughout Venice. This story reminds us that those glassblowers are also responsible for so much more; mirrors, chandeliers, and windows in Venice and beyond. This next trip I know I will look at the windows along the Grand Canal longer and differently. I'll search out glass chandeliers in churches and buildings, seeing if there really is that one in the Chiesa della Pieta, mentioned in the book. When I go to the Cantina Do Mori, I'll look at the mirrors and think of Venetian glassblowers. Now, even the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, which has a part in this book along with Louis XIV, will take my mind to Venice.
This post is part of the Italy in Books 2011 Reading Challenge. Check out other reviews on books based in Italy: January's Italy in Books Challenge. If you'd like to join the reading challenge, it isn't too late: Italy in Books Reading Challenge 2011.
Have you read The Glassblower of Murano? What did you think of the book? Do you have any other books based in Venice to recommend?
**The photo of the book cover is from the Amazon Associate program. Other photos in this post are mine, all rights are reserved, and may not be used without my permission.
What do I do when I'm not in Italy? Well, besides planning my next trip, I do a lot of reading. It's not only food and travel or cookbooks I read. In fact, I love all books, especially fictional ones. A story that's set in Italy and involves the food of Italy is even better. When I travel abroad, I check out the local book stores and their English section. The English books featured at bookstores in other countries are, many times, not the same ones featured in the U.S. I've found some of my all-time favorite Italy-based books in those stores.
For me, a good story is a way to travel to another place, time, life, and culture without having to pack or buy a plane ticket. Whenever I'm looking for a new book to read, I ask myself, "Where do you want to go today?" Many times that place ends up being somewhere in Italy.
For this reason, I am thrilled to join Book after Book's Italy in Books Reading Challenge in 2011. The challenge will run the entire year. The goal is to read one book a month, review it, and possibly win a prize each month. It's open to both bloggers and non-bloggers. The Book after Book site will have a place for non-bloggers to enter their reviews. Although the challenge is focussed on fiction and non-ficiton books, you can also review up to two cookbooks and/or travel books, "learning" books as they're termed in the challenge details. I think this is a great way for all of us Italophiles anywhere in the world to share what we've read and to give each of us a broader exposure to books set in Italy.
If you're interested in joining, hop on over to Book after Book's site for information and challenge details. She also gives resources for finding books based in Italy.
Below I've listed my 10 favorites in fiction that I've already read and a few I have planned for this reading challenge. If you're still searching for a last minute Christmas gift for a special Italophile, any of these would be a great choice.
Ten Favorites in Fiction Set in Italy:
The Food of Love - Based mainly in Rome, it's a food lover's version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Laura, an American student in Rome decides she will only date a chef. She finds one, she thinks. Tomasso is actually a waiter, but he persuades his shy roommate Bruno, who is a chef, to cook while he takes the credit, and gets the girl. In the meantime, Bruno falls for Laura and creates meals for her that has her falling in love, too. It's just with the wrong guy. Love, food, comedy, Rome and Roman cooking make this a great read.
The Birth of Venus - Historical fiction set in Florence during the 15th century. The story of a woman's life, Alessandra Cecchi, during the time just after Lorenzo de Medici's death and when Savonarola's influence was on the rise. The plague, political unrest and a serial killer in Florence add to the tension. Alessandra, a strong willed woman and artist, navigates her way in a world not so kind to women. The story weaves in historical information about Florence and artists of the time.
The Wedding Officer - Another story of food and love in Italy. This time the story is set in Naples during the end of World War II. Livia, a widow and cook from the Campania countryside, comes to Naples to find work. English Captian Gould has come to Naples as the wedding officer, to discourage and deny the marriages of his fellow soldiers to any Neapolitan women with shady reputations. After Capt. Gould has denied many marriages, a local decides that food is the way to soften his heart. Livia becomes his cook. Food and love prevail in this novel. You will also read about life during wartime in Naples, an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the beginnings of the Camorra, the craziness and hilarity of the Napolitani and, possibly best of all, Neapolitan food.
Leonardo's Swans - Historical fiction set mainly in Milan during the 15th century about two sisters in arranged marriages, Isabella d'Este and Beatrice. Beatrice landed the more powerful husband, Ludovico Sforza. Isabella, the more beautiful, cunning and ambitious sister, is jealous. Isabella catches Ludovico's wandering eye, and she plans to use this to her advantage to get a sitting with Ludovico's court painter, Leonardo da Vinci. This story of the lives and rivalry of two sisters takes you to the Duke of Milan's court during the 15th century, where you'll find political intrigue, family feuds, and the fight for being immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci's brush.
Beach Music - I absolutely loved the storytelling in this book. It's based in Rome and South Carolina. After his wife killed herself, Jack McCall (a travel writer) took his daughter and moved to Rome. Evenutally he returns to South Carolina, faces the death of his wife, and other tragedies that have happened in his past. These include problems with his dysfunctional parents, and childhood friends. I literally laughed and cried, mostly at the same time, while reading this. The author weaves together stories of Jack, his family and his boyhood friends. Their families all seem to be battling for the title of most dysfunctional family. The Holocaust, Vietnam and a terroist attack at Rome's airport also play pivotal roles in this story. (I had a crush on Jordon Elliot, one of Jack's childhood friends, for the entire book. He's the priest living in Rome. Yes, I realize he's also not a real person, but the story was written so well, I sometimes always forgot.)
In the Company of a Courtesan - The courtesan's dwarf servant, Bucino, tells their story. They barely escape the sack of Rome in 1527 and flee to Venice. Scarred and ill, Fiammetta - the courtesan - is nursed to health by a blind healer, La Draga. Fiammetta returns to her profession in Venice. You're transported to 16th century Venice in all its splendor and sordidness as the drama and the lives of Fiammetta, Bucino and La Draga unfold.
The Sixteen Pleasures - Set in Florence after the flood of 1966, Margot a 29 year-old librarian, decides to come to Florence to help save and restore books damaged in the flood and to find adventure. While helping to restore books in a convent, she finds the book "The Sixteen Pleasures" believed to be the last copy of Aretino's erotic sonnets and accompanying drawings. (The Pope had ordered all other copies to be burned.) The book could be worth a lot of money and save the struggling convent. With this book, she cetainly finds adventure in Florence.
Angels and Demons - Most people know about this book and the movie. Still, it's one of my favorites in fiction. It is an entertaining work of fiction, but the art and the buildings in the drama do exist. It's "24" but the race is in Rome, and we learn little factoids about art, history and the Vatican along the way. Hopefully all those that have seen the movie also read the book. As with most movies, it did not do the book justice.
The Passion of Artemisia - Historical fiction or fact-based fiction on the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman elected to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence. The story starts in Rome where Artemisia is the defendant in a rape trial against her painting teacher. She agrees to an arranged marriage with another painter in Florence. While in Florence, her painting career does better than her husband's, and problems ensue. The story portrays a life of an woman and an artist in Italy during the 16th century.
The Thief Lord - After their parents die, two orphaned boys run away from their dislikeable aunt and uncle to Venice. They join up with a secret community of other orphans who steal to survive. The leader of the "gang," who goes by the name Thief Lord, does most of the stealing, jewels from rich Venetians. The aunt has hired a Venetian detective, Victor Getz, to find the boys. While Victor is searching for the boys, someone hires the Thief Lord to steal a wooden wing, which is actually a key to a magical merry-go-round. The hide-and-seek mayhem is amusingly played out in the alleys of Venice. While most of my favorite books are better suited for adults, this book is a good read for both adults and children.
My list for the 2011 reading challenge includes the 4 books below. I just started Sacred Hearts and will be reviewing it in January. I need to find 8 more, so if you have suggestions for me, please add them in the comments section below.
What are your favorite books set in Italy and what would you add to the list above?