Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Recommendations About Convents, Vivaldi and Venice

Fans of historical fiction and/or stories set in Italy should pick up at least one of these books: Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick, The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice by Laurel Corona, and Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant.

Vivaldi's Virgins and The Four Seasons take place in the Ospedale della Pieta in eighteenth-century Venice. The ospedale takes in orphans, and the girls are given music lessons, either in voice or on a stringed instrument. For a time Vivaldi, also known as the Red Priest, was the maestro and composer. Anna Maria is the main character in Vivaldi's Virgins, and she has taken up the violin and will become one of Vivaldi's best students. Anna Maria's story alternates between letters she writes as a child to her unknown birth mother and reflections on her life as she looks back on her years spent teaching at the ospedale.

The Four Seasons focuses more on two sisters, Maddalena and Chiaretta, also orphaned. Maddalena becomes a violinist, and Chiaretta has been blessed with a sweet voice. They grow up in the ospedale, then take two very different paths: One stays, the other marries. Corona has less mystery in her story than does Quick, but the details of convent life and Venetian life in general are fascinating. Both books address the question of identity and what it means to grow up without knowing one's parents or family history. Music is an ever-present factor in these two novels, how it was written and performed, how students were taught, and even how it shaped the girls' identities.

Dunant's book is also set in an Italian convent, but she chose Ferrara in the sixteenth century. The characters rarely step outside the grounds, although they do hear news from beyond their walls. The time is before Vivaldi's birth, but music is still a large influence in the lives of the nuns. Serafina's father brings her to Santa Caterina to get her away from her lover. She has a beautiful voice, but once inside she refuses to use it. Suora Zuana, the convent's apothecary, tries to take her under her wing, but Serafina has her mind only on escape. Serafina causes quite a disturbance in the ordered life of the sisters, and Zuana has to decide between what she knows is right and what the abbess wants.

All three of these books are wonderfully detailed and take the reader to an exciting time in Italy's history. The sights, sounds, and smells are rich and vivid. The characters are complex and interesting, including Vivaldi himself. Their struggles and the choices they must make are timeless, and the authors have crafted every aspect of their lives beautifully.

Read my entire review >>

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