Monday, June 23, 2008

Hearts and Minds, by Rosy Thornton


Martha Pearce is beginning her tenth and final year as Senior Tutor at St. Radegund’s, an all-female college at Cambridge, when James Rycarte, the first man to ever be appointed as head of the college, arrives to take on this controversial role. Martha is loyal to the college first and foremost, but can’t help but be drawn to Rycarte, whom she imagines will flounder in the face of the female opposition he finds at St. Radegund’s. However, Rycarte, who comes to the world of academia after a successful career at the BBC, holds his own against the forces arrayed against him—though he is very grateful for Martha’s support.

Martha is at a crossroads in her life and career, not only unsure about what she will do when her term as Senior Tutor ends, but also at a loss about how to deal with her depressed teenage daughter and difficult poet husband.

This is the set up for Hearts and Minds, a novel about campus life by Rosy Thornton. I had heard about this book on several book blogs (sorry I don't remember which ones, but let me know if it might have been yours), and was intrigued, and then the writer offered to send me a copy. I was surprised to find that the book was a sort of quiet page-turner—I kept picking the book up whenever I had a spare moment to find out what was going to happen to these very real and appealing characters. I was really drawn into their world. I also liked Thornton’s gently humorous storytelling, and her satiric slant on the idiosyncrasies of the academic world.

I was not surprised to learn that Thornton is a fellow at a college at Cambridge, as she has written with perfect pitch on the subject of turbulent campus politics, including student unrest, stifling political correctness, and vicious infighting between academics. I really loved how the complicated politics of the story unfolded. I liked watching Rycarte balance trying to keep the college afloat financially while attempting to maintain his integrity. It was also fun to follow the Machiavellian maneuverings of the women who plot Rycarte’s downfall. I found it very easy to root for both Martha and Rycarte, who combat the nasty politics on campus with good humor and good sense.

Martha’s problems at home are as difficult as her trials at work—and Martha’s reactions to these troubles are relatable and realistic. I felt such sympathy for her when her husband and daughter seemed so out of touch, and out of reach, to her. The portrayal of Martha’s daughter’s depression was so natural and true that it was very distressing to me—I really related to Martha as a mother!

This novel was a pleasant immersion in the particular world of Oxbridge academia. I found it to be an entertaining and somehow comforting read. I think the comforting aspect came from really relating to the characters—they felt like people I would like to know--and from Thornton's gently satirical style. I look forward to reading her next book.

P.S. With a little prompting, I figured out at least one of the places I first heard about Hearts and Minds--on BooksPlease, in this lovely review! (thanks for the hint, BooksPlease!)

16 comments:

Myrthe said...

I have read so many good reviews about this book! Yours only added to my wanting to read it. It sounds like a book I'd enjoy very much.

Gentle Reader said...

myrthe--the setting and characters were really nicely done :)

Matt said...

Another novel with an academic setting. How can I pass this one up especially when I need more books for the read-a-thon? Thanks for the review. :)

Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed this book a lot -- it was a great combination of smart and entertaining and comforting. I really enjoyed reading about Cambridge -- I'm a sucker for academic novels!

BooksPlease said...

Could you have read about it on my blog? I really enjoyed this novel too. I could identify with Martha as well and found it a completely believable and absorbing book.

Gentle Reader said...

matt--I enjoy novels in an academic setting, too!

dorothy--I thought it was a great combination of those things, too. And I'm realizing I'm a sucker for academic novels, too!

booksplease--Yes, it must have been on your blog! Thank you, that was driving me crazy. I'm going to link to your blog on my post. I enjoyed the book, too!

Bookfool said...

I think I read about this one at either Eva's blog or Trish's, but I just can't remember. Lovely review. You've made me want to run right out and grab a copy. :)

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--ooh, thanks, I'll bet I read about this on one of those blogs, too! It was a nice read, hope you like it :)

melanie said...

had never heard of it until now! but i'm adding it to the list. as always, thanks.

heather (errantdreams) said...

Sounds like an enjoyable read. I used to work at a college and more than had my fill of academic politics, but I have to admit, they'd certainly make for interesting reading!

Lisa said...

I've read a great deal about this book, as well. I really need to get a copy for myself.

Iliana said...

I thought Martha was a great character wasn't she? I mean, she just seemed very real to me.

Table Talk said...

As someone who knows Martha's world intimately I found this novel very difficult to read at times because there was so much that was so true and so painful. The only thing that didn't ring true, unfortunately, was what happens to Martha professionally at the end. Would that such jobs were out there to be handed over to the deserving, but it just doesn't happen.

Gentle Reader said...

melanie--this is one I heard about on the blogs :)

heather--I think the arena can be very interesting, though I'm not sure I'd want to work in it!

lisa--it was one of those books I kept hearing about on blogs--glad I read it :)

iliana--exactly--Martha was real, and very likeable. I probably read about this book on your blog, too! Thank you!

table talk--it does seem that at least the academic world should be a meritocracy, but I guess that is very rare in any world...

Logophile said...

This is one of those books that's packaged all wrong - I'd never pick that off the shelf - but here's another review of it that makes me want to read it! Thanks for reminding me I want to read this!

Gentle Reader said...

logophile--I didn't mention it in the review, but I, too, thought the "chick-lit" style cover was all wrong for this book. It felt like the publisher didn't quite know what to do with it...