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If you were a man in 16th-century Italy, daughters were bad luck: It cost a lot of money to have someone take them off your hands. You might be able to afford a marriage dowry for one, but what about her sisters? For a more modest sum, the Catholic Church would give you a lifetime lease on a cell. Girls were brought up differently, according to whether they were being bred for the veil or for marriage. The buying and selling of women, rich and poor, took up a lot of mental energy.

"I said words, that's all. They came from my mouth, not my heart," says the newest novice at the convent of Santa Caterina, in Sacred Hearts, Sarah Dunant's latest novel. Suora Zuana, the dispensary sister who is trying to calm Serafina to sleep, has heard the formula before: It means the girl has been coerced into the nunnery.

It seems perhaps a little disingenuous to talk of coercion when the options are so limited, and this is one of the themes Dunant explores through Zuana. Which woman is freer? The nun cloistered in an austere cell, allowed only limited contact with the outside world but remarkably at liberty to follow her dreams, or the wife and mother whose every move is governed by strict social codes and whose brain can do little except rot?

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Zuana herself would certainly not be allowed to run a dispensary, experimenting with plants and cures, in the outside world. In the end, she knows which she prefers: "... in this 'prison' there are no fathers to bully or rage at the expensive uselessness of daughters, no brothers to tease and torment weaker sisters, no rutting, no drunken husbands poking constantly at tired or pious wives. ... Here no one's womb drops out of her body from an excess of pregnancies, no one dies in the sweated agonies of childbirth, nor has to suffer the pain of burying half a dozen of her own children."

Sacred Hearts is in some ways the opposite of Dunant's first historical novel, The Birth of Venus, in which a teenage girl in 15th-century Florence defies strict social custom to follow her heart, having a brief but passionate affair with a painter. Once the affair is stopped by forces beyond their control, the girl moves with her daughter to a convent, where she learns to find peace and can pursue the art she loves.

In Sacred Hearts, Serafina has not been brought up for the veil, but had to be hastily cloistered once the man she was intended to marry preferred her sister. Serafina herself is in love with her music teacher, whom she could never, of course, marry under any circumstances. Her rebellion against imprisonment turns convent life upside down for the nuns as she desperately plots her escape. But even if she has been coerced, leaving the convent is not easy. First, there is no possibility of release until her one-year meeting with the bishop. Even if she does still insist that she is being held against her will, both she and her family will be covered with shame if she leaves the nunnery.

Further complicating the story is Serafina's astounding singing voice, something the convent can use to make money to finance itself, and therefore not something it will give up without a fight.

Serafina and her lover have arranged a secret way of communicating, and arrange an escape by boat that requires elaborate preparation, during which Dunant paints a fascinating picture of daily life in the convent. But when Jacopo does not turn up at the appointed time, and the abbess informs her that he has accepted a job in another city, Serafina begins to despair, coming close to death. A holy vision turns her life around, and the novice, now calmer and wiser, discovers the pleasures of piety.

Just as the convent is coming to terms with Serafina's transformation, Zuana learns that Jacopo has been the victim of a larger plot that centres around which of Ferrara's great families controls the convent. Should she tell Serafina that her lover did not betray her after all, and risk disturbing her new-found peace? Her decision will affect the whole nunnery, as the abbess tries to defend her position - and the nuns themselves - against Suora Umiliana, a nun from the convent's other leading family, who yearns for the counter-Reformation measures the church is pushing to return purity to convent life.

Zuana is a likeable character, gentle and perceptive, and just enough of an outsider in convent politics to keep the story moving by her discoveries. Her calm assumption through most of the novel - that Serafina will, like all the other reluctant novices she has seen over the years, come to accept her position - has a kind of awful fatalism to it that nicely skews the stereotypical path this could have taken: Older mentor sees herself in young novitiate, helping her to escape to live the life she couldn't have. In the end, Zuana, Serafina and the abbess hatch a plan that breaks all kinds of rules, each with the desperate aim of saving something very dear to herself.

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Sarah Dunant's plotting skills were honed on her first books, literary thrillers, and she interweaves multiple suspenseful tales with skill and ease. Her sumptuous writing style and her talent at making history relevant and characters vivid mean that Sacred Hearts is like the feisty heroine in a highbrow costume drama: gorgeously dressed, highly accomplished and impeccably mannered, but still with plenty going on between the ears.

J. C. Sutcliffe, writer, translator and editor, lives down the road from a convent.

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