Sacred Hearts – Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts is the third selection for the new TV Book Club, so when I spotted a copy hiding on the library shelves I decided to grab the opportunity to try it.

The book is set in an Italian convent during the 16th Century. It tells the story of a young woman brought to the convent against her will, as her family couldn’t afford the dowry to see more than one of their daughters married.

I was totally unaware of this practice – I found the detail of convent life fascinating and struggled to imagine a society in which so many women were forced to leave their loved ones to spend a life locked away from the world.

It is always hard, understanding what is being gained in the moment at which something is also being taken away. For such a young woman to appreciate, for example, the different meanings of incarceration and freedom. How 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.

The book was rich in period detail and contained many of those little facts that you just can’t help sharing with anyone who happens to be close by. The characters were well drawn and I especially loved the way in which all the nuns had unique personalities, following the rules to a varying extents.

My only criticism is that the pace of the book was quite slow, which meant that the 460 pages dragged in several places. I’d recommend this book only to fans of historical fiction, as I don’t think the plot is exciting enough to entertain anyone who isn’t interested in learning about life in the 16th Century.


This is the first Sarah Dunant book that I have read, but I’m interested in reading more.

Have you read any of her books?

Which would you recommend I try next?

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  1. lilly says:

    I agree about the slowness of this novel. Had there been slightly more happening from the beginning (I think it did pick up in the end) the book could be more approachable. But, in my opinion, it’s still better than The Birth of Venus.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lilly, If this is the best then I’m not sure I want to read the rest…I’ll have to think about it.

  2. Simon S says:

    Sounds interesting indeed Jackie. I have some of Sarah Dunants ‘non-fiction’ which I quite want to give a go. I would give Sacred Hearts a read if saw it at the library maybe though after having sorted out my TBR over the last few days I should be avoiding libraries as well as book shops hahaha. I don’t know why but both the covers put me off and I can’t explain it. Isn’t it weird how covers can make us feel about a book just from the sight of them.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I’m trying to avoid libraries too! I just keep checking books out, then reading them as priority over my TBR list. I really need to read more of the books I already own.

  3. kimbofo says:

    What happens in the plot?

    1. Jackie says:

      kimbofo, Not a lot! A woman is broght into the convent, she doesn’t like it, she has to learn to live with it!

      It does have an ending, but that would give it away….

      It is quite unbelievable that such a long book can have such a simple plot, but I’m afraid it is true.

      1. kimbofo says:

        I don’t mind simple plots, as long as the characterisation is good. Often it’s what’s going on in the character’s heads that makes the story, rather than the action.

        If you want to read another book set in a convent I can highly recommend Ron Hansen’s “Mariette in Ecstasy”. The writing is exquisite, and there’s quite a bit of drama, because Mariette begins to show signs of divine possession and no one quite knows whether she’s faking it or not. My review is here:

        1. Jackie says:

          kimbofo, The characterisation in this book is very good, so I think you might like it.

          Mariette sounds like an interesting book. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

          1. kimbofo says:

            Jackie, I just remembered I read Dunant’s “Transgressions” quite a few years back (there’s a review on my blog somewhere). It was a weird kind of thriller – almost pornographic, actually – and I didn’t much enjoy it, which is probably why I’ve not read any of her other stuff.

          2. Jackie says:

            Kimbofo, I haven’t heard of Transgressions before, but I can assure you there is no sex in this book!

  4. Verity says:

    I haven’t read this, although I’m not sure why as I’ve seen it around a lot and I am interested in boosk about convents. Maybe it was the period setting that put me off…

    1. Jackie says:

      Verity, If you are interested in books about convents then this is the book for you! Don’t be put off by the period setting – the atmosphere is fantastic.

  5. Stephanie says:

    I loved this book! I have never read any of Dunant’s books, but I definitely want to. My sister is reading The Birth of Venus right now and says it is a bit slow but I will probably read it before I go to Florence in March.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, The Birth of Venus sounds like a great book to read before a holiday to Italy, so I hope you enjoy it. The plot of Sacred Hearts could be described as slow, so I’m sure it will be OK – I’ll keep an eye out for your review.

  6. diane says:

    I have not read this author, but I do have this book. Just hope I enjoy it as much as you did. Great review Jackie

    1. Jackie says:

      diane, I hope you enjoy it!

  7. I loved this book, but almost put it down until I got to about page 70. Then I checked some reviews that said it had a slow start so I kept going, and pretty soon I couldn’t put it down!

    1. Jackie says:

      rhapsodyinbooks, I didn’t feel as though it had a slow start – I thought the pace stayed the same all the way through – I’m pleased it hooked you in though!

  8. Pam says:

    I love Sarah Dunant! I loved this book and oh I love that UK cover! I suggest “In the Company of a Courtesan” next. I love her amazing descriptions of Italian culture.

    1. Jackie says:

      Pam, I’ll keep an eye out for “In the Company of a Coutesan” Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Colleen says:

    The basics of the plot sound interesting – convent life, etc – I am not sure I want to trudge through something that is slow – I will think about it. Thanks for your review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Colleen, A lot of it is just long, rather than very slow. It is hard to explain the difference, but it doesn’t take that long to read this book, considering its length.

  10. Aarti says:

    I admit I haven’t read this book though I like the author because (among other reasons like too many books) it seems too religious-based for me. But maybe it’s not like that!

    1. Jackie says:

      Aarti, I’m not a fan of religion in books, but this book doesn’t contain very much. It is more about the day-to-day life of the nuns and isn’t in any way preachy.

  11. I’ve been eyeing this for a while now, but I’ve borrowed too many books from the library already. This might have to wait another couple visits more.. The premise does sound very interesting, and like kimbofo, as long as the characterisation is done well, I don’t mind a simple plot.

    1. Jackie says:

      Michelle, I’ll be interested to read your thoughts if this book manages to sneak its way out of the library with you!

  12. Sandy says:

    I think I remember others saying they had a hard time getting through the book as well. I can count on one hand how many true historical fiction novels I’ve read, so this might not be one to try for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, If you aren’t a fan of historical fiction then this book should probably be avoided – there are lots of other great books out there to enjoy!

  13. Jenny says:

    I’m not crazy about historical fiction, just in itself – how much I like it varies so much depending on setting. 16th century Italy doesn’t thrill me, but old-time-y convents are fascinating! So, adding to the list & crossing my fingers I don’t get bored. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, You’ll probably get bored in a few places, but overall I do think it is worth it.

  14. Dana says:

    I agree about the plot, although once I got past a certain point I flew through the novel. I did find it interesting reading though!

    1. Jackie says:

      Dana, It is a very quick, easy read – I flew through it too.

  15. Petunia says:

    I really liked the book but I thought the little bit of plot it did have was not very good. It was well researched and well written but the main story was contrived.

    1. Jackie says:

      Petunia, I agree that this book was very well researched. I’m not sure I’d call the book contrived, just a bit too simple. Overall it was an enjoyable read though.

  16. Beth F says:

    I haven’t read any Dunat — but I do own three of her books. This sounds like a perfect match for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I have a similar problem in collecting books from an author I haven’t read yet! I hope that you enjoy one!

  17. I wasn’t aware of that practice either. The book sounds fascinating! I need to read my copy so I can pass it on to my mom – I think she’d love it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathy, I have a feeling that this book will appeal to the older generation more than the younger one, so I’m sure your mom will love it. I hope you like it too!

  18. Essie Fox says:

    Interesting post – I was SO looking forward to this novel as I loved Birth of Venus, and In the Company of the Courtesan. But, somehow I didn’t quite connect with Sacred Hearts. I appreciated the finely drawn setting and it was clear Dunant knew her subject inside out, but I never really felt myself caring. I put it down to my frame of mind at the time as a good friend absolutely raved about it and was very deeply affected.

    Re Transgressions, a much earlier Dunant novel – contemporary thriller – I didn’t like that at all. It was again, very well written, very tense. But, I felt something too dark lurking beneath it. And that’s odd because I love dark stories and perverse characters.

    1. Jackie says:

      Essie, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

      I think I agree with you – I never really cared about the woman either. I think it would have helped if we’d been introduced to her story earlier – so we could have seen her wonderful life before she was forced to leave.

      I enjoyed this book for the historical detail, but on an emotional level I didn’t care at all.

      Thanks for the further info. on Transgressions – it sounds like a book I should avoid.

      1. Essie Fox says:

        I agree that to have seen more of the ‘externa’ life of the young heroine in Sacred Hearts would have appealed. I would have liked more of a contrast to events within the confines of the convent. But, I do remember reading a review in which Sarah Dunant said that it was important to her to set the entire novel within the convent, essentially without men, as she wanted to concentrate exclusively on the reactions and actions of the nuns.

        Perhaps I had the wrong expectations after reading Venus and Courtesan first. I do love Sarah Dunant’s writing and will certainly read whatever she writes next.

  19. Wendy says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog today, Jackie, and leaving me a comment on my review of this book :) Yes, once again, we agree! I really thought the pace at the beginning could have been faster, but by the end, I didn’t care anymore! I have not read any of Dunant’s previous books (although I have one of them – can’t remember now which one – on my TBR stack). I agree with you that those readers not interested in Historical fiction should steer clear of this one…it really is meant of readers who LOVE the historical stuff.

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, It is nice to see that we continue to agree on books that we read. I’ll keep an eye out for you reading any more Dunant books and decide to read them based on your opinion!

  20. Mystica says:

    Readers of historical fiction and generally history will like this book. I liked the historical part and the detail of how life in the convents were like but the plot was not interesting for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mystica, It is quite an achievement that so many people enjoyed this book despite the lack of much plot.

  21. Carolyn says:

    Our book club read The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunat. The blending of the history of the Italian city Florence in the fifteen century with the fiction is captivating. It is the story of two artists and their passions, and the violence of the era that changes the lives at its time. I found the plot interesting, and was immediately captivated by the story of this young woman artist and her confines in her place in history.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carloyn, You make the Birth of Venus sound very appealing. I think I’ll make sure that is the next Sarah Dunant book I read. Thanks for the recommendation!

  22. Marie says:

    I enjoyed this book a lot too but I agree with your caveats. I thought of it as really good historical fiction and I was totally into it, but it’s not for everyone. I found the period detail really fascinating and loved the characters.

    1. Jackie says:

      Marie, SNAP! It sounds as though our opinions on this book match exactly!

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