Overview from www.bn.com: The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina in the Italian city of Ferrara noble women find space to pursue their lives under God’s protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina’s new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.
The sixteen-year-old daughter of a noble family from Milan, Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant—young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl’s cell to sedate her. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, who is old enough to be Serafina’s mother.
I don’t know how it happened, but somehow how I’d never before heard of Sarah Dunant, the author of Sacred Hearts. I found the novel in my local library’s catalogue and the premise sounded intriguing. Having now finished it, I have to say that I have never read anything like it. I mean this in a good way. I liked this one a lot.
In the beginning of the novel we see the meeting that the overview mentions between Suora Zuana and the new novice Serafina. Apparently, part of Suora Zuana’s duties as the dispensary sister include sedating screaming newbies who freak out and make a lot of noise during their first night in their cell, locked behind convent walls. It seems that this quite even among the women who willingly devout themselves to God. The first night is just too much for them.
Unfortunately for both Zuana and the rest of her sisters, Serafina is not willing. She tells Zuana that she intends to get out of their as soon as she is able. She also determines to rebel as much as she can. When she finds out that their chief interest in her is her singing voice, she vows not to sing a note.
Somewhere along the line she breaks her vow and starts to sing in the middle of one of the convent concerts. No one else seems to know why. She tells no one that she thinks that her lover has come for her. He is the reason for her being placed in the convent. Her father didn’t consider him a good enough suitor for her while the suitor he did pick out for her seems to prefer her younger sister. So dad decides to put Serafina in a convent and let the sister marry the suitor instead. He does not consider her love for her music instructor to be worthy of her family’s status. I guess it is better to become a nun than to marry beneath your station in his mind.
Meanwhile Serafina hatches various plans to escape and not all of them are successful. After one failed attempt, she is almost lured into abandoning her plans for escape by the abbess, the novice mistress and another saintly nun. But Zuana intervenes. Not having many acquaintances outside the convent walls, Zuana takes on a motherly role to the young novice. She seems to be constantly asking herself what is truly best for the girl and then encourages her to try for that.
There are many remarkable characteristics to this novel. The first is the relationships between the characters. I think perhaps it has a lot to with the fact that nearly every character that appears in this novel is female. The males are usually talked about amongst them and one of them sends a letter but they never actually appear with the exception of Father Romero who comes to hear Serafina’s confession.
The other thing that struck me as kind of odd but intriguing was the word “suora.” The nuns are usually referred to as sisters but sister in Italian is sorrella not suora. This confused me somewhat but I thought that it might be a word in dialect but I don’t know for sure. If anyone else does, please let me know.
On the whole, I found this to book to be a good read, though maybe a little dark. At least I didn’t encounter many of the things that bother me with some other books. Also, I found the premise to be intriguing as I said earlier.
As with all historical fiction, I consider the book to be a success if it makes me think and I learn something new. This book did both. If you enjoy historical fiction, I think you too will like this one.
Contains: some dark scenes, some suggestive narration but very mild in my opinion.
Below is the book trailer.