Sacred Hearts is a story set in the late 1500's in an Italian convent. A few historical notes are necessary in order to fully understand the story. First, at this time in order for a noblewoman to be married as befit someone of her class, a large dowry was necessary--so large that many families couldn't afford to marry off more than one daughter. Since women needed to be taken care of, the solution was to put them in convents. According to the author, as many as 50% of the noblewomen of that time ended up as nuns, and not out of a spirit of holiness or vocation. Secondly, this book took place shortly after the Council of Trent. The short version is that the Council of Trent was the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant reformation. It tried to rid the Church of some of the abused complained about by the reformers without accepting their heretical doctrines. One thing called for by the Council of Trent was the strict enclosure of nuns and the enforcement of a simple monastic lifestyle.
This story beings the night a young novice is brought to the convent. She was in love, wanted to marry the guy, but Dad said "no" and packed her off the this convent, in a different city. She is having a tantrum and keeping everyone up. The dispensary mistress brings her a sleeping potion to calm her. Shortly thereafter the abbess assigns the novice to work with the dispensary mistress, who, twenty years ago, was quite distressed to find herself dispatched to the convent upon the death of her father.
This is really one of those books that is more about the characters than the plot. The abbess is a skilled politician and leader, trying to stave off outside interference and keep the inside troops in her corner. She realizes most of her nuns are there for practical reasons, not spiritual and while she looks after their spiritual well-being, she also tries to maintain the status quo of a reasonably pleasant lifestyle. The novice mistress is the abbess' main competitor for power, and she wants to purify the convent, make it less worldly, more focused on God. There are nuns who are insane and those who are just plain mean.
The book is very well written and contains an extensive bibliography. It is the third book in a series (I haven't read the others) about the life of women in that time. In some ways these nuns were little better than prisoners--their fathers "sentenced" them to the convent. While they had to make vows, their lack of other viable choices limited their freedom to say "no". However, the wealthy brought dowrys with them that allowed them to comfortably furnish their cells. There were servant sisters who waited on and cleaned up after the choir (wealthy) sisters. The choir sisters had a vote in the management of the convent. When compared to an arranged marriage to a man who beat you, convent life didn't look so bad.
If you like historical fiction focused on women, I think you'll like this. At 400 pages it is a little longer than my average read, but was well worth it.
Marica, who hosts Mailbox Mondays on her Printed Page blog sent me this book as part of her "Read it Forward" program. Thanks Marcia! Here is what she had to say.
Other Reviews: http://imbookingit.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/sacred-hearts/ , http://www.lovereading.co.uk/book/3665/Sacred-Hearts-by-Sarah-Dunant.html , http://www.skrishnasbooks.com/2009/08/sacred-hearts-sarah-dunant.html , http://rhapsodyinbooks.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/review-of-sacred-hearts-by-sarah-dunant/, http://booksandmovies.colvilleblogger.com/2009/08/19/book-review-sacred-hearts-by-sarah-dunant/, http://maryreannon.blogspot.com/2009/09/book-review-sacred-hearts.html http://booknookclub.blogspot.com/2009/07/sacred-hearts-by-sarah-dunant.html