A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Television-man and Desmond Lynam lookalike James Rycarte arrives for his new job: as “Mistress” of an all-woman’s Cambridge college, the fictitious St Radegunds.
Here he finds himself beset by problems: the library is falling down, the students are on strike, research stipends cut, and he is swamped by divided committees where the fiery Feminist Marxist academics take on financial administrators happy to be propped up by money from land-mines.
Unsurprisingly the fiery Feminist Marxists aren’t too happy about the appointment of a man to head up St Radegunds either, and the hapless James finds himself besieged on every side.
Enter Martha: the brown-eyed, lip-munching forty-something Senior Tutor: moral to the core, loyal to a tee and the one true adviser he has to guide him through the quagmire of college politics. But Martha has her own problems at home and with her own career and her sense of self. She needs to be needed, but does not know what to do when her teenage daughter really does need her and is threatening to go off the rails.
Lisa: Hearts and Minds got me in the habit of bed-reading again – something I haven’t done for years. For thirty minutes each night I snuggled up and read the perfect cosy book. I loved being in the world of Hearts and Minds – it reminded me very much of a Victorian novel in its attention to detail and the rich atmosphere. It was like a modern Gaskell or Dickens, and like Dickens, Rosy Thornton has had fun in naming her characters: we have the wry Rycarte, the slightly martyr-esque Martha, Darren the Dean and his predecessor, who was “Dean” the Dean.
This is the sort of thing I imagine my parents reading in front of a roaring (Calor gas) fire. That’s not to say the novel wasn’t original – I found the insiders’ perspective on a Cambridge college to be fascinating. As a child, I remember viewing Cambridge as a sort of Gondor (from The Lord of the Rings, for those of you not acquainted with the wonderful Middle Earth) and so I relished all the details about the workings of what has always appeared to me to be a very elitist establishment.
Hearts and Minds is a rich-textured, beautifully written and leisurely-paced novel; indeed, I found it impossible to read fast. Whenever I tried to cheat a bit and skim a page, I found myself going back to read it again more slowly. I especially relished the intricate structure of the novel, with its subtle echoes, parallels, counterpoints, nothing fragmented and everything under the writer’s control – it’s the kind of thing you don’t often see in modern fiction, and for someone who has grown up on 18th- and 19th-century novels (like yours truly) this is a special treat. The novel has all the prerequisites, fine characters and vast potential for a great plot, which makes it something of a shame that there isn’t more plot.
It takes a while to get all the different strands going, which is part of this novel’s great charm – see: the leisurely pace – but, in an ideal world, it would take even longer to pursue every strand that is introduced, and in the end the book just seemed a bit too short for me. (An unusual, and perhaps unfair, complaint, I know!) Because of this – there being so much material in relatively (!) few pages – the novel is somewhat lacking in an overriding story arc. Thornton has the knack of making the (mostly) well-bred intrigue at St Radegunds read like a suspense novel, and I think this tension might have been put to better use. But what is already there, is excellent.
RosyB: This is an intelligent, gentle read – a touch of the rich canvas of detail of the sprawling Victorian novels the author so loves (she makes no secret about her beginnings in fanfiction, predominantly surrounding Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South) – and a touch of Margaret Forster in her exploration of the mother/daughter relationship. A comedy in the old-fashioned sense of the word, it is a tale of wry observation rather than laugh-out-loud humour – also in the sense that all ends well and you kind of know it will.
Sub-Plots: Politics, Love and Relationships
RosyB: There are many strands to this novel, some of which work better for me that others. The college politicking is masterfully done, and strangely compelling for something that could so easily have become dry and uninteresting. There is a plot about money: a moral dilemma based on a possible donation that weaves and ducks and dives its way to the end of the book in a series of very satisfying twists. I also greatly enjoyed the subplot with the Dean – so geekily familiar.
Lisa: The relationship between Rycarte and Martha was very deftly done. But the relationship between the Dean and Julia really had me turning the pages. Darren the Dean is a geek, and I am mightily fond of the geeks, so perhaps that explains it, but I did think it was handled with sensitivity, and a gentle humour that had me smiling on numerous occasions.
There is a whole subplot about whether Rycarte should be Mistress, Master, Principal, or even President. As I said earlier, names and titles are important in this book. Which brings me to Ros Clarke, a scheming, almost Machiavellian woman, determined to oust Rycarte before the year is through. I liked Ros Clarke – almost more than Martha, I think, so it made me laugh when Rosy Thornton described Ros as her own evil twin, and pointed out that as a child she had been called Ros.
Leena: The danger with many subplots is that every reader will prefer a different one over the others! I was so caught up in the college politics, in Rycarte’s relationship with Martha and Martha’s with her daughter Lucia, that I didn’t pay as much attention to the adorable geek as I should have. Julia and Darren were both sweet, but I felt I didn’t get to know them very well. Funny thing to say about a book that’s already quite long and full of detail, but as I mentioned above, I thought that for all these subplots to work perfectly – that is, for the whole intricate structure to come properly together – the novel ought to have been even longer, even larger in scope, taken even further: to Middlemarch territory. It was well on its way there, and if there, I think it would have been a truly great novel. Though I don’t know how realistic it would be to try and sell a modern Middlemarch in this day and age . . .
RosyB: Another question in this area for me was the politics – for whilst the college politics was great, I found the treatment of wider politics more problematic – for example a speech from the dodgy Italian donor, Alvau, and Rycarte about the Palestinian/Israeli situation. I was not sure what to make of this dollop of opinion or why it was there as it was not developed or part of the plot – Was it shared by the book? Was it a character-point? What was it doing there? Was there a hint that Rycarte may not share his friend’s position? Or did I imagine that? Whilst I am sympathetic to the notion of bringing in political issues of the day, I wonder if a case of far too little about far too much is more dangerous than either dealing with it more fully or not at all.
I loved Ros Clarke and would have liked to have seen more of her – great character.
Lisa: The part of the novel which could have been fleshed out more for me, was the part with the Tigresses – a group of annoying high achievers, who have their own secret club, complete with initiation tests. I would’ve liked to have found out more about their leader, Karen, who is so irritating as to almost be a caricature. But perhaps as she is more peripheral to the plot, she’s been necessarily overlooked in terms of motivation. It is a big thick book with a lot of characters, which must have been a huge challenge for the writer, and I would say that on the whole she’s done a great job of tying everything together and keeping control of the many subplots.
Lisa: Martha’s relationship with her daughter Lucia is something that I know Leena will want to talk more about. It is at the heart of the novel, and often I wanted to shake Martha as much as I wanted to shake Lucia. Lucia is going through a rough patch but her mother’s reluctance to take off her kid gloves can be as infuriating as Lucia’s reluctance to get out of bed. I inwardly cheered when Lucia got a job in Kwikmart – a great way of evading a pushy parent, I thought, and probably of more value than the Arvon course that Lucia was so set against. I’m sure Arvon writing retreats are brilliant – for those who want to be there. Sending a stubborn teenager who hates the very thought of the course along to one, seemed a bad move.
RosyB: This part is perhaps the most problematic for me. Lucia, Martha’s teenage daughter is rebelling against Martha’s wholesome values: against education, Cambridge…getting up in the morning. Here I paused, because I can’t help but think, as a child of an academic myself, that the writer has missed a trick. I recognise these themes and know how true they are: the nagging about education, the fear of the parent whose child might blow their chances: the pressures put on children of academics that lead so many to drop-out altogether. And yet Hearts and Minds only touches on this. Most problematically of it, we don’t see any questioning of Martha’s point of view. It reminded me a little of Margaret Forster’s Mother Can You Hear Me? but in the latter we see the viewpoint of both sides, leading to greater understanding.
I could not help be frustrated that the author uses omnipotent point of view and yet never seems to question her main character. Although I liked the character of Martha, there were times where I felt irritation with her – perhaps the same irritation her family were feeling. The book could have capitalised on this and used it to allow the reader to really understand the family dynamics that were going on. We don’t really see why Lucia feels the way she does. We don’t get to question Martha’s attitudes, prejudices and assumptions about education, about careers, about opportunities. Her daughter working in a supermarket for a summer hardly seems like the end of the world. So whilst I was drawn in, as it were, I felt a lack of balance of point of view. I wanted to understand Martha and her daughter and husband more.
Leena: This goes to show how we all read differently. I didn’t think the difficulties with Lucia had much to do with Martha’s expectations. Doubtless a sense of pressure was at the root of the problem; but in the time-span of the novel, at least, I understood Martha’s anxiety not to be about her daughter underachieving, but her daughter’s sudden lack of interest in anything. Kwikmart or no Kwikmart, Lucia was unhappy – there was no way to tell how unhappy, which made it especially worrying – and I felt keenly for Martha, who could offer no help or advice without putting Lucia on the defensive and making her own worry sound like disappointment in her daughter’s ‘failure’. I thought the family dynamic was subtle but clear, and I liked the fact that it wasn’t properly ‘explained’. They were deadlocked, and the situation could have ended in a number of different ways. We could only guess, alongside Martha, what was wrong. We could only hope, like Martha, that things would turn out for the best. We could only feel frustrated, alongside Martha, when her attempts at communication were continuously misinterpreted.
If I were well versed in psychoanalytical jargon, I’d like to add something deep about Lucia – who’s an aspiring writer but can’t bring herself to write – as a manifestation of deep-rooted anxiety in the writerly psyche. But I’m not, so I’ll just say I thought this subplot was poignant, realistic, and beautifully done, and when I see my copy of Hearts and Minds on the shelf, it’s the first thing that springs to my mind. (Dame Emily’s flowery curtains are the other thing, but that’s another story . . .)
RosyB: I’m with you on Dame Emily’s curtains! I’m also with you on the power of this plot-strand – I just felt too stuck in Martha’s point of view.
Lisa: Don’t forget the hard won kettle!
Lisa: I don’t see it as Chick Lit at all (should point out here that I am a great fan of Chick Lit and have read tons of it). Politics of all kinds are central to the novel, and academia is not traditional Chick Lit territory. I would say that Hearts and Minds is Fiction. I’m not even sure it’s purely Women’s Fiction, as I’m certain the men in my family would read it and like it.
Leena: Has it really been marketed as Chick Lit? Thornton’s first novel, More Than Love Letters, was perhaps closer to the genre, but not this one; not by a long shot. (And I’m a big fan of Chick Lit, too.) Like Lisa, I wouldn’t even call it Women’s Fiction, as in fiction written purely for a female audience; but I do think Hearts and Minds belongs in a certain tradition, not only the tradition of the Big Victorian Novel but that of 20th-century fiction written by women such as Barbara Pym. I was strongly reminded of Pym and smiled when she was mentioned in the text. But Pym is notoriously difficult to categorise, and labels don’t stick to Hearts and Minds either. Confident in its own nature, the novel is intelligently but unashamedly a Novel by a Woman Writer. I suppose that’s enough to put some readers off, but I think that says more about the readers than about the novel itself.
RosyB: And just to add on that note that one of the best things about the book for me was actually the realisation of the male character, James Rycarte. I felt he was beautifully written – and yes, more interesting for being questioned just a little – even by himself – and found to be a little bit wrong.
RosyB: Hearts and Minds is a big, leisurely, elegantly-written read with a fine attention to detail and a slight formality – totally right with the subject-matter. It has all the good sides of Sunday night television drama: warm characters, small-scale incidents, atmospheric and cosy location. I did want to argue with it every now and again, but this is no bad thing, though could, perhaps, have been harnessed by the author more.
But perhaps these points are testament to the sprawling ambition of this book, that it does touch on so much and try and cram it all in, which is to be admired. Overall, I enjoyed it immensely.
Lisa: This is an accomplished novel, and as a reader I felt I was in good hands. There were no huge surprises but I was pleased with the ending – there must have been a temptation to go for a big romantic showdown, but it went somewhere else, and I was glad of that. Overall I greatly enjoyed spending time in Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds and I look forward to her next book.
Leena: I think there’s something very original but old-fashioned (is that an oxymoron?) about Rosy Thornton’s writing, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. RosyB and Lisa mentioned Gaskell and Dickens earlier, and I mentioned Middlemarch; there’s very little point in rewriting the Victorian Novel in the 21st century, but Thornton shows its techniques can be adapted to this era, and she has the courage of her convictions. This will sound impossibly gushing, but I personally think she is the kind of writer this century needs: one who’s not afraid of a large scope, social vision and moral questions. I do think there is a strong moral core. As in Austen’s writing (goodness, soon we’ll have compared Thornton to the entire canon of English literature. . .) this moral core is not a ‘message’ but a never-ending balancing act.
Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton. Headline Review. 352 pages. ISBN- 10: 0755333888