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Sacred Hearts: A Novel, by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts
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It's hard to believe that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a 16th century convent could command the listener's attention for 15 hours, and leave her yearning for more, but it does, and then some. Santa Caterina, a convent in Ferraro, is home to a diverse group of Renaissance women who have abandoned the difficulties of the secular world and now are citizens of an equally complex and confusing spiritual one. Some of the women enter willingly, choosing to devote their lives to serving God, but others are placed there against their will for a number of reasons, and instead of becoming wives and mothers, they are destined to become brides of Jesus. One such novice is Serafina. From the moment she enters the convent screaming for her lost lover, she disrupts the serenity and sanctity of Santa Caterina. Suora Zuana, the apothecary sister, takes her under her wing and tries to help her adjust to what will be the rest of her life, but even with her angelic, nightingale voice which earns her special treatment within the Convent, Serafina is determined to escape and she ingeniously puts her plan in action.

Sarah Dunant has recreated a unique world of fascinating women who, although shut off from society, are still affected by and influenced by the mores and politics of 16th century Italy. Madonna Chiara, the wise and stern mother superior, is mindful of how her actions will affect her powerful aristocratic family as she oversees Santa Caterina. Dunant's descriptions of convent life are so vivid that it's as if the reader has been dropped into the midst of these remarkable and memorable characters. Suora Umiliana, the nun in charge of the novices, could give lessons in domination by intimidation to Marine drill instructors. Suora Magdalena's faith is so strong that she is able to conjure up visions and stigmata. Suora Ysbeta's desire to be a mother makes her wrap her small dog in blankets and treat him like a baby. Perhaps the most remarkable, though, is Suora Zuana who learned about medicinal herbs from her father and realizes that as a woman, her only chance to do research and practice medicine is within the confines of the convent.

Rosalyn Landor 's narration gives the entire convent and all of its inhabitants an energy that brings a dynamic, pulsing immediacy to a time period that's 500 years in the past. Even though they all wear the same habits and look the same to the outside world, their unique personalities emerge, thanks to Landor's skillful narration and Dunant's brilliant writing. This audio book is one to be savored for its beautiful prose, its enthralling characters and the opportunity it provides to slip into another time, lifestyle and mindset.

Ruth Mormon

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