Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hearts and Minds

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton
Headline Publishing, June 2008
trade paperback, 437 pages
ISBN-13: 9780755333899
highly recommended

Synopsis from cover:

St Radegund's College, Cambridge, which admits only women students, breaks with one hundred and sixty years of tradition by appointing a man, former BBC executive James Rycarte, as its new Head of House. As Rycarte fights to win over the feminist dons, the Senior Tutor, Dr. Martha Pearce, faces her own battles: an academic career in stagnation, a depressed teenage daughter and a marriage which may be foundering.
Meanwhile, the college library is subsiding into the fen mud and the students are holding a competition to see who can 'get a snog off the Dean'. The question on everyone's lips is: how long will Rycarte survive at St. Radegund's without someone's help?
My thoughts:

I really enjoyed this novel. It is a well executed, clever satire of a fictional women's college in Cambridge. Anyone who has ever worked in the education field or been on a board for any organization, or, really, anyone who has ever worked with a number of co-workers is going to appreciate the characters Thornton has carefully developed because they were all very true to life. I know these people. (While reading Hearts and Minds I even dreamed I was teaching again.) A great part of what made Hearts and Minds so enjoyable is this realism. You can understand how stressful it is for Martha Pearce to juggle the demands of her career and home. Along with James Rycarte, you've met those contrary people who, it seems, are always looking for a fight or who always want to be right. As a mark of a good book, I even found myself losing sleep, staying up to read one more chapter. (What were those students planning?) Although I'm not going to give a spoiler here, I do want to thank Thornton for the ending. It could have headed off in a different direction, which would have caused me to lessen my rating, but instead the ending was pitch-perfect for the book.

Hearts and Minds is also quite funny. I found myself chuckling out loud several times. For example, see the quotes for the description of the "Mistress's Lodging". Living by a large university, I also completely understood the description of the arrival of the students (see quotes) and am preparing for the onslaught soon here.

In fact, I really only have one complaint about Hearts and Minds and that quibble has nothing to do with the book at all. It's the cover. While Hearts and Minds is going to appeal more to women than men, it's not really chick lit or a romance, but the cover would have you thinking otherwise. Perhaps it's the inner artist/designer in me, but the cover would have been much better if it were, perhaps, a black and white photo of a bicycle, with it's basket full of various items leaning against a building. The current cover is too cute. Highly Recommended

Hearts and Minds was sent to me by the author.


The accommodation required to refocus her eyes from computer screen to watch face took more effort that it would once have done - more effort than it should. That was one further unwanted thing she would have to contrive to jiggle into her complicated diary over the next week or two: a visit to Dollond & Aitchison. Martha removed her reading glasses and laid them on top of the scatter of papers on her desk. pg. 1

In two minutes the students would be at the door, and in five days he would be arriving at St Rad's. She had just eight days to update the term's lectures, as well as to finish writing the sixteen new ones she had to give because of Jane Billington's sabbatical leave. Eight days before the new intake of freshers would arrive, requiring the annual round of introductions and greetings, and bringing with them a whole new set of tutorial headaches as yet unguessed. pg. 3

James Rycarte hoped very much that it was not a portent when he missed the college the first time. The signboard announcing St Radegund's College to the passing motorist in reassuringly unfeminine black capitals was all but obscured by foliage, which seemed to have been allowed to burgeon unpruned since his last visit in February. pg. 7

The public reception rooms downstairs were not so bad: in the dining room there was in fact a very fine oak refectory table and a set of twelve dining chairs with understated sepia upholstery. But the curtains were richly sprigged with rosebuds, and elsewhere in the house the rosebuds had been allowed to ramble and blossom wholly unchecked. Worst of all was what Rycarte enjoyed the irony of thinking to himself as the master bedroom. Here the frills and flounces so garlanded that the room could have served as the set for a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. pg. 10

The Student Union had made no secret of their opposition, last year, to the election of a male Head of House. Room rents merely gave them an excuse to stir things up, to make life difficult for James Rycarte even before his formal investiture. pg. 15

Only towards the end of that first afternoon, after a day of briefing meetings with all the people who pulled the strings in his new workplace, and several others who wished they did, did Rycarte finally persuade the University's central computing service to divulge to him the details of his e-mail account. pg. 30

Cycling through the city, nobody familiar with Cambridge could have failed to notice the unaccustomed density of traffic in the semi-pedestrianised streets immediately surrounding the central colleges, or the proliferation of people carriers and family estate cars, driven slowly by parents unfamiliar with the town and laden high with boxes, blocking rear-view mirrors. pg. 33

Lucia seemed never to be far from the edge of tears. If one of Martha's tutorial students had been in this state, with what ease would she have voiced her suspicion of depression and advised seeing a doctor; why was it then so hard in her daughter's case? pg. 35

Six days in post and he recognised that already Martha Pearce had become his barometer for gauging what mattered in the college; if St Rad's had a beating heart she was it, or close to it. pg. 42

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