Nun Better: Jo Piazza Picks Literature’s Five Best Nuns

Nun Better: Jo Piazza Picks Literature’s Five Best Nuns


Who run the world? Award-winning journalist Jo Piazza thinks that answer should be nuns! In her latest nonfiction work, If Nuns Ruled the World, Piazza explores the lives of ten sisters who are actively changing the world for the better. Defying outdated stereotypes, these nuns travel the country protesting restrictive healthcare, breaking into nuclear weapons facilities, and even defying the Catholic Church by welcoming gay and lesbian believers. To celebrate the book’s release, we asked Piazza about her own favorite fictional nuns. Of all the nuns in literature, Piazza thinks these five are the best—bar nun.


1. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Prioress

I never really believed that Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prioress was actually a nun, but she was so over-the-top it was impossible not to find her delightful. Bedecked in jewels and covered in lap dogs, the Prioress has more in common with a social climbing heiress than a woman of God, and she is nothing like the nuns I write about in my book (no jewels, no fancy cars, and they prefer cats). Still, her boldness is just a little bit endearing and man, can she spin a good yarn.


2. The Nun’s Story by Kathryn Hulme

Sister Luke

Most people associate Audrey Hepburn with Sister Luke (she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the movie version of the 1956 New York Times bestseller), but not me. I happened upon a tattered copy of The Nun’s Story in a beach house during my formative years and poured over the entire thing on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Thirteen-year-old me cried for Gabrielle Van Der Mal as she was torn between two desires. I won’t spoil a thing for you. You need this book on your own rainy day.


3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Humble Nuns

They may enter Holden’s world for a brief moment, but J.D. Salinger’s nuns certainly leave an impression. We see our protagonist give them a hand with their shabby suitcases. Holden is bummed out that the nuns don’t have any money and “never go anywhere swanky for lunch.” He is sad that they are enjoying a humble meal of toast and coffee while he is eating bacon and eggs. The best part of the passage is the fact that Holden is just downright shocked that one of the nuns is a fan of Romeo & Juliet. How could a nun like such a sexy play?


4. Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O’Marie

Sister Mary Helen

Why, oh why, has no one optioned this for a television series starring Mariska Hargitay and/or Julianna Margulies yet? Author Sister Carol Anne O’Marie is a Catholic nun who writes fiction about Catholic nuns—specifically murder mysteries. These books came into my life through a dear nun friend of mine and I have since passed them along to many an Agatha Christie fan. The Sister Mary Helen Murder mysteries have titles like A Novena for Murder and The Missing Madonna. To sum it up, this series is what would happen if Nancy Drew and Ned broke up, Nancy found God, but never abandoned her first love—sleuthing.


1. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

All of the Brede Nuns

Too often, the depictions of nuns in film and fiction utilize the trope of the confused young woman who is torn between her devotion to God and the love of a good man (of course I am talking about a problem named Maria). In Sister Brede we get the opposite. Philippa Talbot abandons her perfect London life to join Brede Abbey. The book follows her fascinating journey from discernment through Vatican II. All of the nuns in this book are fully formed characters that defy stereotypes. The sisters depicted in this novel are so imbued with humor and genuine emotion that I re-read this book as I was writing mine to make sure I was able to capture my real nuns in the same way.

Jo Piazza is the Managing Editor of Yahoo Travel. Her journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Glamour, New York magazine, and the Huffington Post. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia School of Journalism, Piazza is also the author of Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money. Love Rehab is her first novel. She lives in Manhattan with her giant dog.


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