Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

10 Responses to “Rosy Thornton – Hearts and Minds”

  1. Ann Darnton

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although parts of it were such accurate descriptions of the horrors that academics have to face at times that occasionally I had to put it down and take a step back; it got a bit too close to home. The only quibble I had was the solution to Martha’s dilemma. There are a lot of people in her situation and that really isn’t going to be a viable way forward for, well, really, for any of them.

  2. verbivore

    Ann – I have to agree with you on this point. I was disappointed with her final decision (but not that I thought the other possibility offered to her by Rycarte would have solved things either) but at the same time I did think it was realistic, it was human and it was honest. I believe its what many people would have done, rightly or wrongly.

  3. raych

    This sounds pretty good! I’m in college right now (again), and I love books that I can wedge myse

  4. raych

    Whoops. ‘…wedge myself into. Great review.’ was how that was supposed to end.

  5. verbivore

    raych – it was also interesting (for me) in the sense that it was set on an English university campus. I’m not familiar with that world at all and it was fun to work out the differences between the English system and the American one. I’d love to know what you think of this one.

  6. litlove

    A beautiful review, as ever, verbivore! I enjoyed this book no end, and found it to be disturbingly accurate. Really, Cambridge IS that crazy, and Martha a very representative specimen. I’m glad you liked it too.

  7. Dorothy W.

    I just put this book on my wish list — it sounds thoroughly enjoyable; I do like a novel about academia now and then!

  8. verbivore

    Litlove – I suspected the book was incredibly and painfully accurate, and I liked how it focused on the faculty perspective. What a frightening place, really! But all of it believable. And the story itself sat well with me.

    Dorothy – I’d love to know what you think of it – especially as your “in the thick of it” so to speak!

  9. Stefanie

    Very nice write up. I liked the book too. I think you are right, Rycarte and Martha are what make it. The little side plot with Darren and Julia was amusing too. I just finished the book over the weekend and will probably post about it in the next day or two.

  10. suburbanlife

    I liked this book, and your review of it. I do think that the solution to Martha’s dilemma at the end is the only one possible for such a moral character to take. It lent a realistic pathos to the novel, and elevated it from what otherwise may have been a trite ending. A good call by Rosy Thornton! I barely could put this book down, what with the amazing machinations of various academics and students and thank God, I have been preserved from living and working within such an environment. A heck of a good read.G

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