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!)