1570: Isabetta, a sixteen-year-old girl from a rich family, is sent to Ferrara, Italy, in the convent of Santa Caterina, by her parents who wish to avoid a scandal. She unwillingly becomes Sister Serafina, and lets her anger at being locked up against her will echo on the walls of the convent. Serafina has a beautiful voice, she could be the songbird of the convent, if only she put her mind to it. But she is in love, not with Jesus, but with her former singing teacher, and not willing to forget him…

Sister Zuana is in charge of the infirmary. She has a vast knowledge of diseases and cures, acquired by assisting her father, who was a doctor, in all his daily tasks. When she meets Serafina, who becomes her assistant in the infirmary, Zuana feels sympathy for this rebel, who, to a certain extent, reminds her of herself when she was young…

Madonna Chiara, the abbess of the convent, is, for someone who spent most of her life within the walls, very gifted in dealing with temporal matters. She indeed needs a lot of political skills, to juggle the spiritual well-being of her daughters and the pressures of the outside world: the reformation is at work, and, to counter its progress, spiritual authorities have decided to be be harder on convents: performing in religious plays, keeping personal possessions such as books or a dog or entertaining family becomes forbidden in some places. Madonna Chiara, to avoid or at least postpone these restrictions for Santa Caterina, must make sure that the convent keeps an excellent reputation. Sister Umiliana, who is in charge of the novices, and cares only of preparing young souls for salvation, is in favor of stricter rules…

In the convent of Santa Caterina, isolated from the world, these women live, die, work and have their own troubles. They disagree, argue, scheme and, like the protagonists of the bigger scene, fight to have their own way. In this environment, we follow the character of Serafina, locked up against her will, and willing to escape at all costs…

Sarah Dunant has done a thorough research on all aspects of life in a convent in the sixteenth century. She has shown that for some of these women, like for sister Zuana, such a life could be enviable, paradoxically allowing them more freedom in certain areas than the outside world does:

while outside these walls “free” women will live their whole lives dictated by the decisions of others, yet inside, to a remarkable extent, they govern themselves.

This paradox is shown throughout the novel, mainly through the two characters of Serafina and Zuana: one for whom the convent can only be the most restrictive prison, and the other who is allowed to practice the skills she learnt near her father, which she could never have done in the outside world. Sacred Hearts is a suspenseful historical novel, a unique insight into the life of sixteenth-century nuns…

Rating: 4/5