Rosy Thornton, 2007, 341 p.
Dr. Thornton was kind enough to post a copy of Hearts and Minds all the way from Cambridge. I was so impressed and touched by her generosity and good faith that I put the other book I was reading aside so that I could concentrate solely on her novel, and what a novel it is!
I had trouble getting into the book at first, not due to any technical or plot development faults on the part of Dr. Thornton, but because the structure of British higher education is totally alien to me. My confusion didn’t last too long, though, and the novel flowed along smoothly once I learned many of the different job titles and administrative elements of the typical small British college. Later on, I realized I was grateful for these details because I absorbed quite a bit about the make-up of English higher learning institutions. I came away with the impression that they’re quite a bit more conservative and traditional than American colleges and universities. Roolz rule in English skool!
Hearts and Minds is a deceptively simple satire about the trials and tribulations of James Rycarte, an ex-BBC executive, who is hired by a small women’s college to be Head of House. The appointment of a man has never happened before in the history of St. Radegund’s College, and he faces strong opposition from some old battleaxe administrators for practically every decision he makes. His biggest enemy is a horrible woman named Ros Clarke, who is determined to make his life a living hell in the hope that he’ll decide to leave with his tail tucked between his legs. Ros seemed so villainous to me that I pictured Maleficent every time her name was mentioned, and her voice (one of the many in my head) was just like Maleficent’s too! Watch the clip in this post if you’ve forgotten about the shudderworthiness of Maleficent.
Anyway, I mentioned above that Hearts and Minds is “deceptively simple” because it’s really not simple at all. There’s a lot beneath the surface here. Rycarte’s strongest advocate is a Senior Tutor named Martha Pearce, whom I found to be the most complex character in the novel due to her inability to deal with her life and some of the scary things that are happening in it. She’s such a good person with a great capacity to love, but she constantly stops herself from taking action. Her marriage is stagnant and she does nothing. Her daughter is severely depressed and she does nothing. Her relationship with Rycarte is blooming, and she is paralysed with fear and indecision. I empathized with Martha because I’ve been there. This is a big transitional time in her life, and there is nothing more frightening and isolating than having to finally cross that bridge. You have to do it, though, and even if you’re surrounded by all kinds of people, you have to do it alone.
Hearts and Minds is a wonderful and insighful novel, but one thing did kind of bother me about it—there was just too much information! I felt like a few of the subplots, such as the Julia and Darren relationship, were unneccessary. It would have been a “cleaner” read without them. The campus politics were really good, though, and some of the political decisions were hilarious, like the curtain decision by the Pictures, Plate and Furniture Sub-Committee (har). Absolutely priceless! There were other committees too, like the Buildings and Estates Committee and the Fellows’ Parlour Committee and the Ents (entertainment) Committee. How many committees can one place have? And all the hair-splitting, my God! All these ridiculous committees took themselves way too seriously. Hearts and Minds has made me more grateful than ever that I’m no longer part of the megalomaniacal, constipated and insulated world of academia!
Thank you, Dr. Thornton! I’m looking forward to your next novel.