The British campus novel is generally a cosy thing (unless there’s a murder involved). Often they can be rather claustrophobic too, peopled with backbiting dons, scheming students, and inscrutable college servants, all of which give opportunities for creating high comedy – naturally I’m thinking David Lodge here, or the funniest of all, Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe.
This makes Rosy Thornton’s
second novel Hearts and Minds
a rarity. Despite the cover, this is not chick-lit, it is much more of a drama in the Joanna Trollope mould. While it has both cosy and comedic elements, it is also a mature and serious novel primarily about juggling relationships – between academic and administrative staff, between the dons themselves and their families, between students, and students and staff, and, importantly to the plot, old friends who might become benefactors … You can find them all here under the umbrella of St Radegund’s – a women only Cambridge college in need of some money, and which has just appointed an ex-BBC reporter as their first ‘Master’.
First we meet Dr Martha Pearce – the Senior Tutor, totally loyal to the college and its students. Martha works long and hard, to the detriment of her relationship with her family – her workshy poet husband and clinically depressed drop-out daughter, but there is no-one who better understands the student mind when a rent strike is threatened. Martha is world-weary and worried about her future – her research has stalled and her tutor’s appointment is due to end. Martha represents all that is good about St Rad’s, unlike her backstabbing colleague Ros, and the blinkered Bursar Kate.
When James Rycarte arrives – he’s an outsider in every sense. He’s from the media world, not the halls of academe, and he’s the first male to manage the college. He gets a frosty reception from many but not from Martha. Soon it appears that he might be the college’s saviour – an old friend from Italy pledges enough money to repair the library and endow several bursaries. Then Luigi drops his bombshell that the money is dependent on his daughter Paola coming to study at St Rad’s, and a political bag of worms big enough to fill in the subsiding library foundations is released, setting up many conflicts that will take the rest of the novel’s 425+ pages to resolve.
You don’t need to have gone to Oxbridge to enjoy this college life. The fictional confines of St Rad’s mean that the city itself doesn’t have a large part to play, but it is easy to sympathise with Martha and James who are fully rounded characters with difficult decisions to make.
I should declare that I was sent this copy by the author, whom I’ve not met, but she sounds thoroughly nice and is a Cambridge don so knows what she’s writing about! This was a very enjoyable novel, and I have no trouble in recommending it.