Monday, June 02, 2008

Hearts and Minds

One thing I enjoy about fiction is the ability it has to show you a part of the world that you know little about. Sometimes a novel can make you feel like a true insider in a way that few other mediums can, by making you feel you inhabit a place and time completely. Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton was one such novel for me. In this novel, Thorton reveals some of the workings of the cloistered and arcane world of life in a Cambridge University college, a world seems quite strange to the outsider.

The fictional St Radegund's College is a women's college that has, for the first time ever, appointed a male head of the house. The new 'mistress' is James Rycarte a former tv journalist and foreign correspondent. Rycarte's position as an outsider is a useful device for explaining the complex world of the college to the reader. Through the course of the novel Rycarte comes to understand the peculiarities of the college, with its balance between different academic factions and a fiery student council, and the many obscure traditions and protocols of the centuries old college.

The other central character in the novel is Martha Pearce, dedicated Senior Tutor at St Radegund's, mother to a worringly aimless daughter, wife to a hopelessly self-centred husband and ultimate peace-maker and diplomat in the quagmire of inter-personal relations between staff at the college. Martha and James find a connection at once and together they negotiate various crises, including a student rent strike and the ethical dilemma of accepting a wealthy Italian parent's enormous financial donation.

For me, Martha was the most convincing character in the novel. There was something about her constant feeling that she can never do enough for her family or in her demanding job that seemed to ring true. Her efforts to hold together her marriage to her lay-about poet husband were frustrating but all too believable, as was the difficulty she has watching her daughter fall ever further into depression.

Hearts and Minds is fairly light reading. It isn't trying to be anything terribly deep and meaningful, the cover even hints that the book might be aimed at the (cringe) 'chick lit' market. Fortunately Thornton avoids the major pitfalls of that genre and does not sink into sentimentality. There is the suggestion of a romance that is very nicely resolved at the novel's end. The plot is restrained, maybe at times a little too restrained. I don't think it would have hurt to inject a little more drama into the story, but it's a small quibble with what is essentially an enjoyable read.

This novel was kindly provided to this delicious solitude by the author.


Fay Sheco said...

Since my daughter just graduated from college and my son will be applying next autumn, this sounds like a good read that would be easy to relate to our experience, even if the setting is quite different.

Dorothy W. said...

Isn't this book fun? I liked the way it was smart without trying to be anything but a light, enjoyable read. I found Martha's relationships with her family frustrating, but you're right that her actions are all too believable.

jess said...

Fay, I hope you enjoy it although I think this is probably a novel that reflects the peculiarities of Cambridge (and I suspect Oxford too) rather than most other universities.

Dorothy, it is a lot of fun. And you're right, Thornton manages to be smart and light and the same time. Not easy, I imagine.