I loved More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton when I read it in the spring. I adored it. Felt like it had been written specifically for me, with all my personal reading preferences in mind. After that, understandably enough, I was both eager to try another of Thornton’s books and also a bit terrified that it might not be quite as fantastic. So it took a few months for me to pick up Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton but when I did, I was not disappointed. It is very different from her first book but it was fantastic. I love More Than Love Letters but I think this is a stronger novel, in every way, and I adored it.
Fiction or non-fiction, I love books with an academic setting. Hearts and Minds takes place at St Radegund’s College, Cambridge, a women’s only college that has just appointed its first male Head of House, James Rycarte. Rycarte is a former television producer and BBC executive who is ill-prepared for the kind of intra-college politics academia is famed for. Luckily, he has the Senior Tutor, Dr Martha Pearce, about to help guide him along. Martha is devoted to St Radegund’s (as her family, who rarely see her during daylight hours, will attest) and Rycarte could have no more able advisor as he attempts to win over the members of the college. The novel centres around the trials of these two, as Rycarte struggles to adapt to his new surroundings and debates the issue of a generous and much-needed but morally-dubious donation, and Martha fights to balance her commitments to the school with her troubled family life.
Oh Martha. Poor Martha devotes herself to her work and is apparently quite amazing at it, creating compromise where there was only strife, defusing anxious situations, and certainly helping Rycarte out no end. But her home life is quite a different matter. Her seventeen year old daughter, Lucia, has left school and is slipping deeper and deeper into a lethargic depression that Martha feels helpless against. I though the portrait of the mother-daughter relationship was brilliant. Lucia embraced her mother as often as she rebuffed her. She wants hugs and love and is happy to accept them but any advice, any prodding or criticism puts her on edge. And Martha’s growing panic, her feeling of helplessness as Lucia gets worse, was perfectly expressed, right down to her self-censoring during conversations with Lucia, biting back those things that Martha knows will upset her daughter in favour of at least keeping Lucia close and talking a little longer.
Martha’s husband, Douglas, on the other hand, is a rather awful person. A pretentious poet – he only writes in Italian, though he himself is English – who makes a horrible teacher, he seems to contribute nothing to the family. No matter how late Martha gets home, she’s the only one who ever plans and cooks dinner. He goes to Italy in search of inspiration alone, over Christmas. And he refuses to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with Lucia, even after a doctor diagnoses her depression. But he seems to be a bit depressed himself and having a wife who consistently puts her work ahead of her family, routinely working sixteen hour days at the college, would make most spouses testy. Douglas and Martha’s relationship is messy but, again, feels very real and recognizably true to life. And, as with real life, it is hard to know as reader how you hope their story will turn out. They love one another but their relationship has reached a point where it is draining and difficult for them both to be together. On the other hand, the alternative, the idea of not being together after all those years, is very scary.
As much as I appreciated Martha’s family story, I really enjoyed all the glimpses we got of academic bureaucracy via Rycarte. Some were merely amusing – the rigmarole necessary to obtain authorization to put your bicycle in the shed, for instance – while others, equally absurd but more serious in impact, gave me pause for thought. The great moral debate at the centre of Rycarte’s plot – whether to accept a donation from an old acquaintance whose daughter has also applied for admission – was very realistically handled, particularly in how the students reacted when they found out, full of accusations and outrage but very little sense. It is so frustrating to see how much time and energy is expended over things that should be so simply resolved. A large part of what makes both Martha and Rycarte sympathetic is their great common sense, their shared ability to see to the heart of a matter, to the essentials that really matter in issues that have become clouded by heated emotions and accusations.
Hearts and Minds covers a number of challenging and thoughtful topics with a light, confident touch and plenty of humour, making it immensely readable. It has everything you could want: the always alluring academic setting, family drama, romance (between one of the students and a bashful young Electrical Engineering teacher), moral dilemmas, passionate yet illogical undergraduates, and many bicyclists. I could not recommend it more highly.