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Originally published Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Sacred Hearts": a novice shakes the foundations of an Italian convent

In "Sacred Hearts," historical novelist Sarah Dunant weaves an engrossing tale of politics, romance, religious ecstasy and suspense in a 16th-century Italian convent. Dunant reads July 21 at the Bellevue branch of the King County Library system.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Sarah Dunant

The author of "Sacred Hearts" will discuss her book with book editor Mary Ann Gwinn at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Bellevue Regional Library (co-sponsored by University Book Store), 1111 110th Ave N.E., Bellevue; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

"Sacred Hearts"

by Sarah Dunant

Random House, 415 pp., $25

A 16th-century Italian convent would seem to be an unlikely locus for a tale of political intrigue, thwarted romance and adolescent angst. But in Sarah Dunant's "Sacred Hearts," the convent of Santa Caterina in the Italian city of Ferrara is all that, and more.

Dunant's engrossing historical novel begins in 1570. In Catholic Italy, the price of dowries has soared so high that noble families can frequently afford to marry off just one daughter. The only option for the remaining daughters, with their consent or without, is convent life. In a historical note preceding her story, Dunant estimates that up to half of all noblewomen in this era became nuns.

Many were talented — in learning, in the arts, in fine handicrafts. Convent life gave some nuns the freedom to develop their skills in ways they never could have within the bounds of traditional marriage. At the same time, "reform" movements within the Catholic Church designed to brutally restrict nuns' engagement with the outside world threatened the sisters' involvement in music, in theater, in education and in healing.

This is the third historical novel set in Renaissance Italy by Dunant ("The Birth of Venus" and "In the Company of the Courtesan"), who divides her time between London and Florence. Her painstaking portrait of this world, both its delights and its privations, is part of the pleasure of her story. The linchpin of the tale is Suora Zuana, a botanist, pharmacist and medicine woman.

Zuana inherited a wealth of science and healing lore from her father, before his premature death made convent life the sole option for his only daughter. She is a brilliant practitioner of her arts and an openhearted soul who has made her own peace with the restrictions of convent life.

But Zuana's world is upended when Serafina, the tempestuous 16-year-old daughter of a nobleman, is sent to the convent against her will, thwarting a budding love affair with her music teacher. The rebellious Serafina is put into Zuana's care, and potential tragedy shadows the high-spirited girl's attempts to burst the bonds of the convent.

Contemporary readers may feel a certain creeping claustrophobia as they read "Sacred Hearts" — the lack of control these women are able to exert over their destinies is shocking to the modern sensibility. At the same time, "Sacred Hearts" is a portal into a simpler world that had its own charms: As Serafina and Zuana work together, "after a while the silence between them becomes natural rather than imposed. The room throws up its own sounds: the spitting of the boiling water, the chipping and the grating, the scrape of the pestle inside the mortar, the simple rhythms of repetition. The air grows warmer with the fire, and the crushed lavender starts to release its scent. If there is another world out there, it seems a long way away, even for those who yearn to be in it."

And it's an astute portrayal of human nature, then and now. The abbess of Santa Caterina is a consummate politician — today she would be running a country; in her own time she exercises her network of intelligence and arsenal of wiles to defend convent life. Suora Umiliana, who oversees the novice nuns, is a would-be religious mystic who has never been visited by a vision. She is determined to use Serafina as a vessel for the convent's religious awakening — even if it kills the girl.

This novel unfolds slowly; in the early pages the reader may chafe at the pacing, until Serafina's breakout attempt sets the wheels of the plot in motion. But Dunant's masterful portrait of both a time and a troubled adolescent's struggles builds the tension, as both the fate of Serafina and of the convent's way of life hangs in the balance. "Sacred Hearts" is a testament to women who worked, lived and died in the most confining of circumstances, but whose essential humanity shines through in this absorbing tale.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/4216533.php

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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