August 15, 1839. Messina, Italy. In the home of Marshall don Peppino Padellani di Opiri, preparations for the feast of the Ascension are underway. But for Agata, the Marshall’s daughter, there are more important matters at hand. She and the wealthy Giacomo Lepre have fallen in love, and her mother is determined to obstruct the consummation of their love. When Marshall don Peppino dies, Agata’s mother decides to ferry her daughter away from Messina, to Naples, where she hopes to garner a stipend from the King and keep her daughter far from trouble. The only boat leaving Messina that day is captained by the young Englishman, James Garson.
Following a tempestuous passage to Naples, during which Agata confesses her troubles to James, Agata and her mother find themselves rebuffed by the king and Agata is forced to join a convent. The Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Stilita is rife with rancor and jealousy, illicit passions and ancient feuds. Agata remains aloof, devoting herself to the cultivation of medicinal herbs, calmed by the steady rhythms of monastic life. She reads all the books James Garson sends her and follows the news of the various factions struggling to bring unity to Italy. Though she hasn’t chosen to enter a convent, and is divided between her yearnings for purity and religiosity and her desire to be part of the world, something about the cloistered life reverberates within her. Agata is increasingly torn when she realizes that her feelings for James Garson, though he is only a distant presence in her life, have eclipsed those for Lepre.