In 1839, young Agata has fallen in love with wealthy Giacomo Lepre, and he with her. Unfortunately, Agata’s parents disapprove of the affair, and her mother believes the best solution is to whisk her daughter away from Giacomo and her home in Messina, Italy. The two women travel by ship to Naples, where they seek a stipend from the king. But the mother’s plan doesn’t work, and Agata’s only recourse is then to join a convent. Through her, the reader receives a rare and startlingly accurate picture of 19th-century monastic life with its calm, perpetual routines and deep religious fervor. But we also glimpse the darker side of life in this silent, chaste world.
Translated by Antony Shugaar, the story builds slowly, each chapter opening with a brief summary of what the reader can expect to find within. (“The grueling two months of probation.” “The new abbess is opposed to Agata; the cardinal denies her Brevi.”) These encourage the reader to keep on turning pages, expecting dramatic moments. The slow pace in the first half of the novel may discourage readers who are accustomed to speedier plots. Although a love story develops as Agata gradually falls in love with the young Englishman James Garson, who sends her books to read while she is cloistered, the relationship develops at a distance. Only very near the end of the novel do we learn its resolution. The most dramatic scenes (and my favorites) come late in the story when Agata discovers illicit passions within the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Stilita and bravely tries to convince those in power of the shocking truth surrounding the death of a young nun. This is a deeply moving, exquisitely written novel that ultimately rewards readers for their patience.