Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 352 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the author.
The last time I read a campus novel was probably Donna Tartt’s The Secret History way back in 1993. I’d forgotten about the closed world of the university campus, in which students seem perpetually at loggerheads with the academic staff. Once-upon-a-time that was my world too, but I escaped it by the seat of my pants, swapping the cash-strapped lifestyle of a post-graduate student for the cash-strapped lifestyle of the rookie reporter. A dozen years later and I’m an editor instead of an academic, but it could quite easily have been the other way around.
Reading Rosy Thornton’s latest book, Hearts and Minds, which is set in the all-female St Radegund’s College, Cambridge, was an unexpected reminder of my distant past. And in a funny, crazy, karmic-type of way, it seemed fitting to find that one of the main characters — James Rycarte — is a BBC executive who swaps journalism for academia.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel when I began reading it a fortnight ago. It seemed to take forever to set up the plot, which revolves around Rycarte, the college’s first ever male Head of House, quarrelling with the fellowship about a large cash donation that could be used for much-needed building repairs as well as setting up scholarships for up to 10 students in perpetuity. His one champion, the career-minded senior tutor, Martha Pearce, has her own battles to fight — a rent strike by students, coupled with domestic problems involving a clinically depressed teenage daughter and a layabout husband — to devote all her energies to Rycarte’s aims.
But once I got into the rhythm of the writing and came to know the diverse and quirky range of characters, I fell in love with the story, the setting and the little subplots. I decided, about 100 pages in, that this was a book to savour and so I treated myself to a few chapters a night rather than race through it and miss out on the subtleties of Thornton’s lovely rich writing style.
Despite the somewhat “girlie” cover, this is not chick-lit, nor, as the title may suggest, is it a cheesy romantic novel. In fact, I’d argue that this is mature fiction for mature readers, male and female alike. At its most basic level Hearts and Minds explores the complicated balancing acts that people perform every day — Rycarte, looking after the college’s best interests without compromising its integrity; Pearce, juggling her academic career with a troubled home life — but adds a delicious layer of extra interest by setting it in a cloistered world where tradition does not mix with modernity.
This is a great, rainy day novel brimming with intelligent, often witty, prose, the perfect kind of story to luxuriate in while the rest of the world goes about its busy ways. I very much enjoyed it.