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.