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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant, Random House, 2003, 403 pp.

After reading Sacred Hearts, I was eager to read more from Sarah Dunant. Thanks to Juniper, I had a chance to read her most popular novel The Birth of Venus next.

The Birth of Venus is set in the late 15th century in the city of Florence, during the unraveling of the di Medici rule. The book starts with a prologue that details the death of an elderly nun, a death which unexpectedly contains elements of mystery. The novel then proceeds from the time that nun was 14 years old, and tells the story of her life, which was full of passion, sexual exploration, art, history, violence, and more. In other words, not what you’d expect out of an elderly nun.

I enjoyed the book, but it was more beach reading than substance or lasting depth. Dunant is a great storyteller, and her characters, historical research and ability to construct entire worlds made The Birth of Venus a really fun read. Her prose is solid and evocative, but it does not arrest you, and it’s not the kind of book I felt compelled to slow down and savor. It’s a good story, and you want to just keep turning pages. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m on a Wednesday just to get to the end.

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sacred Hearts much more, because I was more intrigued by the setting, exclusively in the world of women inside the convent. The Birth of Venus was a more traditional historical novel, but it still centered on a smart, independent, creative woman trying to make a meaningful life in a time and place that does not accommodate women’s intellect or passion. I love those kinds of stories, and I had a good time reading this one. I’ll be looking for more from Sarah Dunant next time I get an escapist urge to immerse myself in a novel.

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant, Random House, 2009, 426 pp.

This is a novel about women’s relationships, set in the year 1570 inside a Benedictine convent in Italy. The drama unfolds between a skillful, powerful, political abbess; an independent sister who is a gifted healer with medicinal herbs; and a novice incarcerated against her will while her lover awaits on the outside. It is a great story set inside a fascinating context, well written, well researched and well told.

The main plot centers around the young novice, and how her despair inside the convent will be received and managed by various sisters. The future of this one young woman becomes battlefield on which the various conflicts over modernity are played out in the convent. The backdrop for the story is the tumultuous reality of the late Italian Renaissance, including the Council of Trent and its reactions to the Protestant Reformation. The world of patronage and isolation is falling apart, and the church is reacting by digging its heels deeper into practices of the past. The struggle inside the convent mirrors this external reality: is the path to salvation found in increased piety, or in adaptation and political cunning?

Dunant creates a world inside the convent. All the novel’s action takes place inside, and there are no male characters in the entire novel. It is a world broad and deep and thick with detail and action. She takes us behind the uniformity of veil and habit to introduce us to a diverse cast of characters with their own quirks, skills, motives and personalities. While the ending was satisfying, I did not want to bid farewell to the characters or the life-world Dunant had created for them. I wanted to keep inhabiting the convent, to dwell longer with these intriguing women.

I look forward to reading more from Dunant in the future.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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