First, accolades need to be offered to Sarah Dunant for a novel that is beautifully written. There is no question that she writes with incredible attention to detail, and eloquent prose. Her material is well researched and her characters are perfectly drawn. By the close of the book, you know the people inside as though they have been in your life for an extended length of time.
Ah…. there’s the word I’m politely trying to avoid…… length.
Good heavens, this novel was long. If I were to encapsulate my experience with this audiobook in one sentence, I would have to admit that “it was 12 CDs long, but didn’t get interesting until disc 11.”
The novel’s description was promising. The story takes place in 1570 in the convent of Santa Caterina (Italy). The Nuns inside this convent are quiet, kind, pious, and vehement in their pursuit to follow the guidance of their Abbess. It’s a community complete with its own stories, quiet dramas and long-standing rituals. What was supposed to shake the convent up was the arrival of a new novice, Serafina. Serafina is young, defiant, emotional, and desperate for escape so she can be with the man she loves. Her family has placed her in the convent to separate the two, and Serafina is determined to pursue a life that she alone chooses.
What follows is a lengthy description of her relationship with Suora Zuana, the convent’s Dispensary Mistress (apothecary). Zuana recalls her own start at the convent, and takes to Serafina the way a mother takes to a child. Can she keep this novice calm? Will Serafina relent and embrace her new life, or will she succeed in her plans to escape?
What was remarkable to me as I listened to this audiobook was that nothing actually happened for the bulk of the story. While the details were at times interesting, and the characters were clever, the plot meandered. Nothing seemed to propel it. Serafina was defiant, then obedient, then calculating, then hopeless. Her emotions ran the spectrum, while her only “friend” in the convent wondered what to do.
Hands down, Zuana was my favorite character. I liked her temperament, how she quietly questioned authority, and how she came to understand that politics were ever-present in a convent, just as they were in the outside world. I enjoyed her back story with her father who had the foresight and faith to teach her about medicine, and how to heal. I liked her scholarly attitude and her inner strength. Truly, she was a lovely protagonist.
Unfortunately, the novel’s length and slow pace marred my enjoyment. It was just too slow. If you’re going to write a long novel, then you can’t wait for the end to thicken your plot. Readers don’t like challenges to their patience, and I’m afraid that while I loved the style of writing, I found the story wanting.
Now, a note about the narrator of this audiobook, Rosalyn Landor. She was exquisite! Her voice was like silk. The voices she associated with the characters were unmistakable, and the depth of emotion in her tones was astounding. I believe that Landor was one of the reasons I found the novel so beautifully written. She didn’t just read Sacred Hearts, she embodied it. Well done! I will certainly look for her work again.
Overall, 3 stars for Sacred Hearts; a pretty novel that just needed more story.