by Cathryn Conroy (Gaithersburg, Maryland): Oooh! Oooh! I loved this book! Set in 16th century Northern Italy, this is the story of a 16-year-old novice entering a convent–absolutely against her will. In this time, women of good birth had one of two choices: marry or become a nun. And neither one was really her choice, since her father would make the decision for her. Marriages were arranged, and if the family was unable to afford dowries for multiple daughters, those daughters were forced to enter a convent–something that happened to more than half of all noble women.

Our story begins when the novice nun, Serafina, who has the singing voice of an angel, is “imprisoned” (in her mind that’s what has happened) at Santa Caterina convent in the distant city of Ferrara, far from her home in Milan. Her younger sister is the one who was married, but Serafina has a lover of her own. Like she, he is a musician with a voice that makes the heavens weep with joy, but he is not of good birth or reputation. So Serafina is whisked far away from him and locked securely in the convent. And she does all she can to escape.

Meanwhile, there is also great turmoil beyond the locked walls of the convent where the Roman Catholic Church is undergoing massive changes as the Protestant Reformation sparks a cataclysm that is both religious and cultural. And those seismic shifts will soon envelop the convent in ways that are terrifying to some of the nuns.

The plot is fully and skillfully developed, which keeps the pages turning quite fast, and the vivid and colorful descriptions of life in a convent in 1570 are riveting. Author Sarah Dunant has written an extraordinary historical novel that will keep you up way past your bedtime!