Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton

Academic fiction is a sub-genre of literary fiction. Academic fiction set at a women‘s college must then be a sub-sub-genre. The small number of books that fit the bill may explain why Rosy Thornton’s publishers have packaged this book as chick lit or romance; they didn’t know what to do with it. It’s a shame because I could have passed this by—the cover art is cartoony and features hearts and flowers and a pink bicycle. But inside is a clever, sophisticated tale about life at a women’s college in Cambridge, England.

Thornton has created a fictional college, St. Radegund’s, which has just hired a man to replace the revered Dame Emily as Head of House. James Rycarte’s struggle to lead the faculty, students, and alumnae of St. Rad’s makes a great story. Rycarte is an outsider and a realist with a clear understanding of what the college needs to stay relevant in the 21st century. He is a perfect foil for the ivory tower dwellers among the faculty and the spoiled rich girls who are the students. Only Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor, can help Rycarte save St. Rad’s from itself. But Martha has problems of her own, including a depressed daughter, an aging mother, and a husband with a mid-life crisis.

Thornton’s writing is lively and intelligent and her characters are well drawn. I especially loved the minutiae of life at Cambridge. I didn’t always understand the roles and relationships (what is a Senior Tutor? A Head Porter?) but it didn’t matter. Thornton moves her story forward at a good pace while at the same time providing just the perfect amount of engaging details. Anyone who has worked at, or even attended a university will recognize the archetypes and will get the jokes. (It helps that Thornton is an actual professor at the actual Cambridge University.)

Rosy Thornton doesn’t seem to have a U.S. publisher but her books are available from and from Powells. She’s written two other titles that also sound good and she’s got a cheerful little Web site at Fun fun fun.

(Book 20, 2009)


Emily Barton said...

I loved this book when I read it last year. Thornton is superb with characterization.

Sarah Laurence said...

How strange: I have another English novel with this same title on my to read list. Dovegreyreader scribbles and From the Desk of Bee Drunken blogged about Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig. It sounds like I should read both. Thanks for the review!

Sarah Laurence said...

Both Hearts and Minds novels were released in April 2009 in England - how confusing! I couldn't find the Amanda Craig one on and the Rosy Thornton one was expensive. I'll pick up both next time I'm in England. The subject matter is very different - Craig focuses on immigrants to England. I'll come back with another comment when I post a reviews of the two books.

This same title problem happened to an author friend of mine: there are two YA books called Shift released in 2008.

Nicola said...

I like the sound of this. I'm always interested in novels set in academia. David Lodge's Nice Work is particularly good.

Cath said...

I love books set in boarding schools and those ivy-covered cottages, so this is going to be a must-read for me. Thanks for the review!

-Connie @

LINDA from Each Little World said...

I went to a Catholic girl's high school and we created a fictional school as a way to comment on our lives in cards and notes to each other post graduation. It was called St. Radegonde's! Sounds like I need to read this.

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