Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After reading Hunger's Brides and having been a fan of the Mistress of the Art of Death series, I found this book a happy synthesis of the two. When a young woman is sent to the Benedictine convent of Santa Caterina which is run along fairly liberal lines by Madonna Chiara, her refusal to conform and the friendship she establishes with the convent's most unconventional nun, Zuana, soon threatens to disrupt the serenity of the sisters. Determined to help her new charge, Zuana, the dispensary sister, imparts much of what she knows of herbal and other medicines to the girl. After her father, a famous doctor, died, Zuana packed up and entered the convent. As a woman of modest means and with a breadth of learning not possessed by many men she wasn't a great marriage prospect but it is clear that she would have preferred a life at her father's side, assisting in the preparation of cures and learning how to diagnose illnesses. Zuana is thus keenly aware of the pain the new novice feels at being thrust into the world of convent life.
Set in the 16th century, the action of the plot takes place in the context of the larger changes taking place within the church, transformed and convulsed by the fall-out from the Reformation. Chiara must navigate these dangerous waters, conscious that there are many who are always alert to heresy while others pray for signs and miracles. The young woman, Serafina, cares nothing for any of this, however. The spiritual world is not for her but how will she ever escape?
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