Another Renaissance novel from Dunant (In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, etc.), this one focused on convent life.
In 16th-century Italy, convents were not home merely to women who felt called to Christ. They were also repositories for ugly, unconventional or otherwise unmarriageable daughters. Many of these discarded young women were from noble families, and the luxuries and extravagances of court life left them disinclined toward asceticism. Nuns who vowed to avoid unnecessary talk nevertheless managed to gossip. Women committed to poverty lined their rough habits with satin and fur. And the promise of eternal chastity was no safeguard against desire. Dunant does a thorough job of depicting these tensions, conflicts and paradoxes. She captures convent life and sets it in a larger cultural context, paying particular attention to the religious politics of the times. The novel boasts a bibliography of 56 titles, and the reader who is so inclined can make a game of guessing which historical or theological tidbit came from which source. Unfortunately, this is about the only form of entertainment on offer here. The book has none of the dash, energy and storytelling confidence that made Dunant’s last novel so enjoyable. She seems overwhelmed or overawed by her material, and the narrative is not merely slow but oddly repetitive. Characters make the same discoveries again and again, and even the most dramatic events simply dissipate. The repetitive plot does have the effect of giving the reader a sense of a nun’s existence, defined as it is by a never-deviating schedule of devotions. For the nun with a true vocation, this is no doubt a source of comfort and even elation, a release from mundane time and a tantalizing foretaste of eternity. But the average reader is likely to identify with those extraneous daughters interred against their will, struggling to stay awake and yearning for a little action.
A disappointing effort from a talented writer.