Apologies for not posting for a few days – I’ve been very busy and away from home this week (to the Netherlands, for work), so my posting schedule has been delayed. However, my trip away allowed me to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for the first time, which I really enjoyed (I’m not normally a big fan of Dickens), and which I’ll be reviewing some time soon. For today, however, here’s a review of quite a different novel.
(Headline e-book 2007)
I heard about this book on the Women Doing Literary Things blog: Thornton teaches at Emanuel College, Cambridge, and wrote amusingly about the general scorn her academic colleagues had for her writing ‘women’s fiction’. Like many other women writers, Thornton had also felt frustrated by her publisher’s decision to issue the book with a completely inappropriate cover design (pictured): Hearts and Minds is not traditional ‘chick lit’ since there’s very little emphasis on romance. I have to say that, had I encountered the book in print form, I’d probably not have picked it up.
Central to the story is St Radegund’s, an all-women college in the university of Cambridge, breaking with tradition for the first time by appointing a man as head of the college: James Rycarte, former journalist and BBC management type. His appointment has ruffled not a few feathers, both of the women tutors and the students alike. Senior Tutor Martha Pearce, an economist, is contending with numerous issues, both at college and at home: on the one hand, the students under the leadership of senior students Karen and Deepa, are upset by the proposed rent increases, and are planning a rent strike; on the other, Martha is frustrated by her husband, a poet, and her daughter Lucia, whom Martha suspects to be depressed. Rycarte’s arrival throws into prominence Ros Clarke’s opposition to the idea of a man as Head of the college, and also allows the main thrust of the plot, concerning a potential donation to the college by an old acquaintance of Rycarte’s, Luigi Alvau. Alvau’s suggested donation is a considerable one, but may come with strings attached: his daughter Paola wants to study at the college.
Parts of the book are amusing – such as Rycarte’s initial fumbling with the arcane rules of life at St Radegund’s, and the endless discussions in committees of the college – and parts are more serious and moving, particularly Martha’s fears for and interactions with her family. Martha and James are the main characters, though I also liked the burgeoning relationship between Darren, the college’s young Dean, and student Julia, which starts as an initiation ritual (for Julia) but ends in something much more tender and romantic. The book made me continue reading, and I kept wondering what would happen next, and how James and Martha would overcome the – considerable – opposition to the Alvau donation.
That said, I found Martha and James rather enigmatic characters, at times. Although the reader is privy to many of their thoughts and feelings, neither of them feel entirely three-dimensional. Although there is a lot of discussion of the Master’s job, after Rycarte’s appointment, I never really got a sense of why he had applied for the job in the first place, and what he hoped to achieve in his post. Likewise, Martha is devoted to her job, loves her family, and hates conflict, and while her duties due pull her in different directions, and she feels guilty for having neglected her daughter, in particular, I did find her rather frustrating. She seems to be trying to be all things to all people, unselfish, dedicated; necessary. The ending also felt rather contrived – though I’m not an academic (and Thornton is) so I assume that the post offered to Martha could come about in that way, though I do find it odd she doesn’t even seem to be interviewed. The relationship between her and her husband is deeply unsatisfying to the reader (though probably quite realistic), mainly because we see it only from Martha’s point of view, and he does and says nothing to indicate why she still loves him.
Guilt is, I suppose, an irrational emotion, but poor Martha is saddled with a husband who seems to do nothing in the house – she’s the one who cooks, for example (though she does seem to enjoy it, and food is an important part of her reconnection with Lucia). She has the unenviable role of being the breadwinner in the household, but without the support from a partner in the home. Certainly Douglas doesn’t do or say anything to help Lucia, either, though it’s clear to the reader that what Lucia’s suffering is not as benign as Douglas thinks, and in fact makes one wonder if he, too, is depressed. In fact, it’s something of a role reversal to the usual kind of thing, and it’s the husband in this novel who finally decides to pursue his dream unfettered by the limits of his wife’s job – but he’s not at all sympathetic.
Anyway, I enjoyed this, with the reservations noted above, as a feminine take on the traditional campus novel.