I loved the idea of this book. It’s set in a 16th century Italian convent--while convents often appear on the periphery in historical fiction, I was eager to get a more in-depth look inside one. And the book revolves around two potentially great characters: Serafina, a rebellious teenage novice, is the focal point of the story, while most of the book is told from the point-of-view of Zuana, a reluctant nun who nevertheless has found much to appreciate in convent life. Zuana in particular ought to have been fantastic: she’s not particularly pious for her time, and in our time would probably have been a doctor. In the convent, she’s the “dispensary mistress,” essentially acting as a doctor--a freedom she didn’t have in the outside world--but she still sometimes chafes at the convent’s restrictions, even though she doesn’t regret not having a husband or children.
But despite its potential, what stands out about this book is its lack of plot and tension. It takes an awfully long time to get started and never really gains momentum. Serafina acts rebellious, but we mostly see that through Zuana’s eyes, and there isn’t much going on in Zuana’s life. She treats sick people. She has a subdued rivalry with a more conservative nun. She worries about increasing restrictions on convents, a fear that never materializes in the actual book. And.... that’s about it. Zuana has already made her major decisions and come to terms with her life before the book begins. Most of the novel is just daily life and it’s all very subdued, without even much sense of simmering tension beneath the surface.
Maybe that’s the point--that convent life is subdued--but for that kind of book to work for me, I need more. More in-depth, insightful characterization. More elegant writing. More of an ability to make everyday life compelling. As is, it’s just a slow book that doesn’t compensate with extra depth.
Learning a bit about convent life was interesting. More could have been done with the idea that the convent is simultaneously restrictive and liberating (a place where women govern themselves and can pursue some career interests, but where everyday life is strictly regulated). Unfortunately, this book turned out to be bland and predictable, developing exactly as I’d guessed it would. The characters never leaped off the page, the slow-as-molasses story never hooked me, the cultural detail set the stage but never reached the level of being fascinating in its own right. I wish I’d been able to like this book more and am rather impressed with the people who did; to me it seemed uninspired, a sad waste of potential. Dunant mentions in the Author’s Note that some nuns resisted new restrictions on convents--even physically fighting back--and I was left wondering why she didn’t write that story instead.