Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant (Random House, 2009, 432pp.)
In Renaissance Italy, 16-year-old Serafina is separated from her lover after her father forces her to join the Convent of St. Caterina. Here, she is forced to contend with the likes of Madonna Chiara, a wily abbess who will stop at nothing to remain in power, Suora (Italian for “sister”) Umiliana, the novice mistress who abstains from all worldly comforts (and thinks that everyone else should, too), and Suora Magdalena, the elderly “living saint,” prone to fits of religious “ecstasy” (or perhaps they’re just catatonic seizures?). The focus of the book is the platonic relationship between novice Serafina and Suora Zuana, the convent's dispensary (apothecary) mistress. Unfortunately, this relationship is a rather ordinary one, and doesn’t carry the story very well. But while Sacred Hearts loses points for the foreground action, it's the details on the sidelines (and in the background) that make this novel appealing. Dunant’s depiction of life in a Benedictine nunnery—daily chores, social interactions, as well as her strong supporting cast—makes for a flawed, yet intriguing read.