Monday, July 20, 2009
Serifina is a young girl who has just unwillingly taken her vows to become a novice in the convent of Santa Caterina. Her family, not able to afford the dowry price for both of their daughters, has decided to marry off the younger, and in turn, give Serfina over to the service of God. From the moment she steps into the convent, she exhibits extreme rebelliousness and anger the likes of which the nuns at Santa Caterina have never seen. When Suora Zuana is charged with her care, the dispensary mistress becomes fascinated and disturbed by the girl's furious fervor and vows to make her transition as easy for her as possible. Very soon Serfina begins to calm down, and while the other nuns are grateful and complacent with this change, Zuana becomes suspicious of the rapid change in Serifina's attitude. She is sure there is much more than acceptance and obedience behind the new behavior of the novice. But the secret that Serifina is keeping is a dangerous one, not only for herself, but for the entire convent. Santa Caterina is going through it's own growing pains as well. The Abbess, Madonna Chaira must constantly balance her sacred duties to her flock with her courting of the outside benefactors that keep the convent solvent as well as quelling the growing tide of sisters who wish to thwart her rule and ultimately replace her. The novel, both intoxicating and lush, peeks behind the convent walls to give a bird's eye view of the daily lives of the women of God, exposing the jealousies, power struggles and alliances that reflect Santa Caterina as an incredibly complex microcosm of Renaissance society.
This was a fabulous read. There was so much feeling in the story and characters that the pages seemed to be brimming with life. In exacting detail, Dunant was able to convey the loneliness and singularity of what a nun's life must be like while also portraying the fierce obedience to tradition and religion that made these women so strong and devout. The atmosphere of the plot was entirely believable, and at times it felt almost claustrophobic to be among these women who shared every aspect of their life with one another, never straying from the convents enclosures. I have long been interested in the aspects, practical and otherwise, of life in a nunnery, and I really feel that the author was able to beautifully convey what life for these women must be like. I was particularly drawn to the depictions of the convent hierarchy and the daily power struggles that went on between the Abbess and the other sisters. There was a deep exploration of the power of various convent factions and the delicacy of governing women from all backgrounds in life.
Serifina's trials were both ensnaring and dramatic, and although I didn't much care for her as a person, I came to understand her motivations and actions, and felt sympathy for her, despite her unlikablity. There was an element in Serifina that I never felt to be fully trustworthy, and even when she was acting in her natural capacity, I felt guarded about believing her motivations. But I liked that. I liked that she was so morally gray at times, and that her behavior was something that one could never calculate. Despite her disagreeableness, there was something about her that made me cheer for her unflagging spirit.
I had a good deal of affinity for Zuana. As the dispensary mistress, she was in charge of all the nursing and medicine making of the convent, and I really liked that Dunant included so much of the earthiness and practicalities of healing in the book. There were some great sections about the procuring of specific herbs and plants for medical use that I felt were very representative of their time, and I would have to say that anytime Zuana was in the dispensary, I was glued to the page. I found Dunant's discussions of ailments and their remidies to be one of the most exemplary aspects of this particular book.
One of the things that I found remarkable about this book were some of the moral choices that the nuns made. Until reading this book, I had believed that a life given to the service of God would be free of the compunction to be self-serving or to have ulterior motives, which is truly not the case. For it wasn't only Serifina that was hiding in moral grayness. Each nun had her own battles with integrity and ethics, and often they made surprising choices that they felt to be directed by the Almighty, when that was really not the case at all. The story also included a fair a bit about church reform, specifically, the changes that threatened to totally seclude the nuns from outside society, which was a point in history that I was not very familiar with. The pressure that was eventually put on the convents was not only sad, but I feel, unnecessary.
The only gripe I had with the book was the conclusion. I felt that what had been building up through the pages was bound to be a bit more exciting and surprising, but in the end, I felt a bit let down by the book's resolution. It didn't feel entirely believable to me, and that bothered me because until that point the book seemed very realistic and authentic. It was not a terrible ending, and it was fitting, but I felt that it could have been done a little differently.
If you have not yet read a book by Sarah Dunant and wish to, this is the book to read. I have read all of her previous works, and have to say that this one is the best, hands down. This story had just the right amount of drama and a great undercurrent of passion, and I was loathe to read the last page and have it all end for me. There are few books that I move to my permanent collection, but this is definitely one of them. If you are looking for an engrossing read that will keep you thinking and entertained late into the night, you will probably love this book. In particular, those who are fascinated with convent life will really get a lot from it. A great read and highly recommended.