Sacred Hearts

It’s that time again! Time to discuss our book of the month: Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. In case you missed it, check out the book trailer to get an idea of what you’re missing.

Let’s hop to it!

I loved the way the book opened. The first chapter of Book 1 was an excellent introduction to the story and its setting: picturesque and detailed, but not overwrought. It reminded me of the opening sequence in a film, zooming in and out of all the various characters and story lines that would be introduced and fleshed out.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but found it to be slightly dull.  I’m not sure if it’s my modern mentality that strikes a sharp contrast to the slower pace of convent life?  Or is it my aversion to religious “order”/s of all kinds?  I have this strange obsession with Catholic nuns (my sister and I used to play Nuns, should I blame The Sound of Music?)– I’m fascinated by the details of their daily lives and routines, but shudder to think that I’d ever have a life quite so prescribed.  (Devil’s advocate: my life is almost as rigid as the Convent schedule.  Now: get up, go to work, work, come home, eat, sleep; Then: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline, Matins.  They just get cooler names for their schedules.)

What else?

  • There was a bibliography!  Mayhem would be proud.
  • The book’s setting, the convent Santa Caterina, is not a real place, but was based in reality.  In this clip, Sarah Dunant describes visiting the convent and gleaning several pieces of inspiration from the building and its surrounding environment.    (halfway through, there is an image that is the inside cover of the book)
  • I was impressed by the somewhat subversive nature of the narrative.  At first I was annoyed with the perceived religiousity stuffed down my throat; afraid this was going to be some religious tome trying to subtly convert me (Left Behind anyone?)– yet happily discovered the author appears to have a well-rounded viewpoint that contains a heavy dose of skepticism surrounding miracles and saints and the like that I do.

Let’s talk about men for a second.  In this book they were rather faceless.  And wordless.  [**Spoiler Alert**] When you discover that the Serafina’s lover has been paid off to leave Serafina behind in the convent, I began to wonder about the author’s own life and if she has some reason to hate men.  Not just because of this book, but because her oeuvre was beginning to display a pattern. You may remember that in The Birth of Venus, Alessandra chooses the convent over life with the artist and her child.  Does Dunant have some aversion to “true love” narratives and love stories’ propensity for saccharine happy endings?  But then– Serafina and her long-lost lover ended up together. And I was terribly disappointed. This struck me as odd, because through it all, I was rooting for Serafina’s escape and their fairy tale ending together. Thinking on it now, however, what I truly wanted was for Serafina to find her place in the convent. I wanted her to find a fulfilling role to play, like Zuana, and her own happiness without its dependence on a man. (And this is why people tell me I hated the 4th Twilight book “Oh, that’s because you’re not a die-hard romantic.” No shit, people. Reality! Cynicism! That’s my bread and butter.)

To close, I’ll leave you with a few more youtube videos I stumbled upon.
Here, Sarah Dunant talks about the women of Sacred Hearts. She explains that if they weren’t married, ie owned by someone, a woman then became owned by God.  At this point in history, everyone believed in God– there was no word for atheism– but some may have believed more than others. (This explains the difference between Umiliana and Zuana)

This video looks at Serafina: Dunant thought the cloisters were synonymous with silence and reverence, so why not begin the book with screams– the screams of a young girl who did not want to be there. 

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2 responses to “Sacred Hearts

  1. I liked your devil’s advocate comparison of the rigidity in your own life to that of the convent schedule.

    I had a different interpretation of the ending though:

    I didn’t see Serafina’s happiness as dependent on Jacopo and I didn’t see it as a fairy tale ending. The focus of this happy ending was not on a Prince Charming figure who swoops in to rescue his Princess. Serafina and Jacopo’s reunion was a page long, at most, and Jacopo was not the brave mastermind behind the escape plan, only a willing participant. The vast majority of the conclusion of the novel depicts the enactment of a clever plan, imagined by Serafina’s friend (mentor? mother figure?) and executed because of this woman’s compassion for her. It was a happy ending not because the lovers reunite (though this doesn’t hurt) but because the novice gets that which she has wanted the entire novel: to escape, and the freedom to pursue her own desires rather than those imposed on her by others. To me, that’s more feminist than fairy tale.

    • I really like your interpretation of the ending. I didn’t read it this way at all (as you can see from my review) so I appreciate this alternative explanation as it makes me rethink my interpretation and appreciate the book as a whole a lot more.

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