Finally have some time today to write about my recent reading. I’ve shuttled my friend to the airport and although I had a lovely time taking her around the region, I’m also happy to get back into my quieter routine. Which I will kick off by finally writing up my thoughts on Rosy Thornton’s novel Hearts and Minds. 

Books about life at university often have a certain energy to them. A lot of life packed into the pages, and from all directions – from the students with their natural enthusiasm for life and penchant for melodrama, from the professors with either their honest desire to pass something along or a personal agenda (or perhaps both), and finally, from the simple concentration of so many people living and interacting within the academic bubble. Obviously this sort of microcosm is just ripe for conflict. And conflict is what Rosy Thornton gives us in this, her second novel.  

The tension in the novel is multi-faceted – gender wars, political infighting, family dynamics – and centers on two main characters, James Rycarte and Martha Pearce and their respective roles at St. Radegund’s College for women in Cambridge. Rycarte is the new Master, the school’s first male head of house and a non-academic (two unalterable sins only a few people are willing to forgive him) while Pearce is St. Radegund’s Senior Tutor, a woman struggling beneath the weight of her school and family responsibilities. 

I suspect most reader sympathies will lie most easily with Martha Pearce. She’s an intelligent and caring professor, a loving mom and devoted wife but she’s also overworked and faced with a raft of difficult personal and academic decisions. Her daughter has fallen into depression, her husband is just about the most unsupportive lay about lout possible and she’s worried about her current job and what her professional options might be for the future.  

Rycarte is appealing in a different way. He’s a bit more fragile, less inwardly confident than Pearce and quite unsure of the best way to proceed, both in his new job at St. Ragegund’s but also at this stage in his life – as a divorced father settling into a very different lifestyle than the one he’d engaged in for many years as a journalist and foreign correspondent. His awareness of the precariousness of his new situation makes him an endearing character. 

Hearts and Minds examines the inner workings of this type of small university with its suitably lofty ideals and worrying financial concerns and scratches away at the sore spot where these two preoccupations come at odds. Despite this serious focus, this isn’t a heavy book, as Thornton’s writing is brisk and clear and she strides confidently through the novel’s various intersecting themes. There is a lightness about the novel, brought about, I think, from the reader’s nearly immediate approval of both Rycarte and Pearce and how they conduct themselves through their academic and personal ups and downs.  

Family, influence, academics, political machinations, integrity, new love and weathered love…the book takes up each of these ideas and turns them over a few times in its vigorous movement through the hustle of St. Radegund’s calendar year.