Forrest Gump is my favorite movie. And you might well be thinking what does my favorite movie have anything to do with Rosy Thornton’s new novel, Hearts and Minds? Nothing really, except that I can’t help but think of that famous quote; you know, the one about life being like a box of chocolates. Before this book arrived in my mailbox, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get. But one week later, after devouring page after page, I can tell you that it was indeed a sweet surprise, eloquently written and beautifully told.
Hearts and Minds is a compelling story about the inside politics at a prestigious University steeped with history and tradition and, at times, crippled by both. The pivotal character is Dr. Martha Pierce, Senior Tutor at St. Radegund’s College, an all women’s institution, representative of one of the many separate colleges that comprise Cambridge University. Dr. Pierce is in many ways like many of us - a woman trying to find the elusive balance between work and home. While successful in her career, she is struggling with significant personal issues, including a clinically depressed teenage daughter, a severely underemployed spouse, and her own overwhelming sense of guilt. Professionally, she is a woman on the verge of enormous upheaval; her tenure as Senior Tutor has been extended temporarily beyond her third term in order to smooth the way for the new Head of House. But before this transition period is over, Martha will have to make some difficult decisions regarding her own career.
Just why would this transition require Martha to stay on past the end of her term? I’m very glad you asked. The answer would be James Rycarte, former BBC executive and first male Head of House. New to the world of academia, Rycarte stumbles through his first few months as Master of St. Radegund’s, dealing with an unfamiliar tangle of bureaucratic red tape and the blatantly open and sometimes hostile opposition to his presence at the college.
Throughout the book, Ms. Thornton paints these characters in perfect counterpoint. Rycarte is a man out of his element, stretching boundaries and his own personal limits while trying to win the respect of his colleagues, some of whom would very much like to see him pack up and leave. Martha, on the other hand, has been at St. Radegund’s for over twenty years. Confident and able, completely at ease in the institution, respected by all, Martha is the one faculty member Rycarte can turn to for support and guidance. Interestingly, just as James finally finds his footing, Martha’s own world seems to fall apart.
Ms. Thornton’s writing is eloquent and descriptive with intricately drawn images and richly expressive dialogue. As an American, I do admit to needing the first two chapters to find a rhythm, but then I was happily off and running, despite my own limited exposure to the Queen’s English. I also found the setting absolutely fascinating and Ms. Thornton’s descriptions of it prompted me to spend several contented evenings on my own discovering more about Cambridge.
So, life is indeed like a box of chocolates. And sometimes, just sometimes, you are lucky enough to open a box and find it has all of your very favorites.
Hearts and Minds is a must read.