During the late 1500's, it had become so expensive for families to give their daughters in marriage (the girls were supposed to enter marriage with a good dowry) that most families -even wealthy ones- could only afford to marry off one daughter. And generally the only option left for the remaining daughters was the convent and life as a nun, bringing with them a small dowry.
This story takes place in the year 1570, and Serafina (the name given her as a Novice) is endowed to the convent of Santa Caterina at sixteen years of age. Her hysteria at finding herself in this position brings her under the care of Suora Zuana, the Dispensary Mistress, a middle-aged nun whose advent into the convent years before was due to her physician father's death.
The story revolves mainly around these two women (although other nuns play large roles) and takes place solely within the walls of the convent. It is a story of convent politics, religious fervor, boredom, intrigues, and relationships within those walls.
The author does not sentimentalize the lives of these women; in fact, the narrative is quite bleak and harsh. I almost quit reading in the first quarter of the book. I'm glad I persisted, because against this bleak backdrop, the humanity of these women shines through.
The author pulled me so deeply into the story that every time my kids pulled at my sleeves to get my attention, I had to shake myself to get back into my life and time. It was a hard book to read from that standpoint. I came away with a new respect and empathy for these women who had no choices in life, yet who made the most of the life that was given them.
Here are some thoughts I had as I read.
- Did the girls' families know what life would be like for their daughters inside the convent? I somehow doubt it. It was considered an honor to have a family member who was a nun or priest. Although families got to visit the nuns occasionally, I doubt that the life they led was ever discussed, probably out of loyalty to the church. I think it is human nature not to want to discuss the problems of your religion, out of a feeling of self-preservation, if nothing else. And even if the families did know, what else was there for the daughters?
- The nuns could, under a good abbess, be put where their strengths would serve the convent best. And where else in that day and age could you have women apothecaries/healers freely able to work without a man's supervision?
- As powerful as the nuns were within their own community, still they had to answer to and obey the priest. It's sad to me that in this day and time, for all our progress, male patriarchy dominates in religious communities.
- I think the author excellently depicted the religious fervor that can grip a community that is so closed. Then again, you can see that same religious fervor even in communities that are not closed. Religion, by its very nature, incites fervor.
- Then there's the perennial question: do the ends justify the means? (You'd have to read the book to understand why I ask this.)
- The author does not divulge Serafina's real pre-convent name until almost the end of the book. I thought this was a master stroke since -as she says through her characters- names have power. (Again, you would have to read the book to understand this in context.)