17 Jun 2012

Hearts and Minds (by Rosy Thornton)

I'm a little surprised to learn that it's now over four years since I came across Rosy Thornton. I read her first novel, 'More than Love Letters', for the Bookbag site, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was determined to read more of her books, but at the time there was only one other. So it went on my wishlist.. and I was given it a couple of months ago for my birthday.

I've just finished reading 'Hearts and Minds', and liked it just as much. Despite the rather fluffy-looking cover, this is intelligent fiction, set in St Radegund's, a women's college in Cambridge. While the college itself is fictional, the setting seemed highly authentic; I later learned that the author is a Fellow at a different Cambridge college.

The book opens as James Rycarte, new 'Master' of the college, arrives. He is to learn that his appointment was quite divisive; having a man at the top brings out the worst in some strident feminists, including a few who would like to see his downfall. James is not even a Cambridge graduate, but an ex BBC journalist; he's a likeable man who uses his television skills to put his points lucidly and often manages to charm those who might take exception to some of his ideas.

While much of the novel revolves around James, the star of the book from my perspective is Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor. She's a hard-working and warm-hearted woman in her early 40s, often frustrated with the college, but caring deeply about the students. Her private life is far from easy: she is the main bread-winner of her family, supporting her poet husband and their unemployed teenage daughter Lucia, who seems to be heading for a serious depression; Martha is also worried about her mother who seems to be developing Alzheimer's Disease.

And, indeed, the book looks in a realistic way at some serious issues. The author skilfully brings out both sides of several controversial debates on topics which I had barely thought about before. How far should a college go in subsidising rent for student accommodation, for instance, when some of the students are from wealthy families? How can students from all backgrounds and walks of life be persuaded to study at prestigious universities, when they are so steeped in tradition and - sometimes - snobbery? Can one accept a hefty donation from someone who wants it linked to his daughter's entrance to the university?

It's a mark of the great characterisation that I found myself rather frustrated with Martha at times, not dealing with Lucia in the most tactful way, almost pushing her into quiet rebellion or angry silence. I wanted to take her on one side, to tell her that her family was much more important than her work, and to her some parenting tips... then had to remind myself that she is not real. Other characters were equally believable; I followed them into meetings, listened to their discussions, and found myself coming down on one side or the other - usually sympathising with James and Martha.

Despite the serious subjects and academic setting, it's not a difficult book to read. There are some light-hearted parts: some amusing dialogue that made me chuckle once or twice, and even a low-key romance. I found 'Hearts and Minds' almost impossible to put down by the time I was half-way through, and was pleased that the ending was tidily satisfying, leaving open an encouraging future for everyone.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 17th June 2012

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