Good afternoon, everyone! I feel a bit like the Mad Hatter today, getting ready for Alice’s tea party – “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” Easter Sunday is such a busy day for church musicians, with extra service music to prepare and rehearse…and we had some glorious music today! Heralds of trumpets, peals of bells, voices raised in joyful proclamation – oh, forgive me, but the sound still rings in my ears.
At any rate, do come in – settle on the sofa, why don’t you, right in that lovely corner which the sun has so nicely warmed for you. Welcome to The Sunday Salon.
My smiling face isn’t just on account of the holiday, for my reading this week has been simply delightful. Hearts and Minds, by Rosy Thornton, has left the warmest feeling in my own heart, every page a pure pleasure. It’s a tale of St. Radegund’s a (fictional) women’s college at Cambridge, its newly appointed (male!) Head of House, its long suffering Senior Tutor, a diverse supporting cast of family, students, and faculty, and the trials and tribulations which arise when an “outsider” attempts to break new ground in academic traditions which have been practiced for nearly two centuries.
Ms. Thornton could be a 21st century Barbara Pym, capturing every nuance of college life (as Pym did with village life) with insight, humor, and obvious affection. Her characters come to life instantly, and quickly begin to feel like friends. Our introduction to James Rycarte, the new Master, had me smiling in recognition, as he vainly scoured the campus on his first morning for a cup of coffee. “Inside was darkness and the aroma that greeted him was not that of the blessed roasted bean but of wax polish and an underlying hint of damp. By now, Rycarte would have welcomed the worst kind of insipid leachings into a polystyrene cup, but there was not so much as a water cooler. Just two circles of assorted and somewhat threadbare armchairs, gathered convivially around a pair of coffee tables which, however, were failing to live up to their name.”
But it’s really Dr. Pearce -Martha – who most captured my heart. I recognize so many bits of myself in Martha, from her constant scurrying attempts to stay one step ahead of career and domestic responsibilities, worries over an aging mum and a depressed teenager, right down to her impervious husband, who occasions feelings of repressed resentment. And it’s actually Douglas, her husband, who really nails Martha’s (an my own!) character to the wall.
“For God’s sake, Martha,” he tells her in exasperation, “you’ve got to accept that not everything is within your power to solve. Not everything is your fault.”
Be still my heart. Because so often, that’s just what I think about my own life – and honestly, don’t most of us who try to juggle children, home, husbands, career, and life in general (and still find time to indulge our appetite for reading or music or knitting , or whatever else feeds our souls) find ourselves feeling overly responsible for making everyone’s respective worlds continue to go round smoothly. And we beat ourselves over the head and into the ground when we fail to live up to all the expectations, especially our own.
By novel’s end, Martha has come round to the conclusion that she had “reached the brick wall at the end of the street. A fresh direction, a new start: these were the things she sensed she needed – though as things stood, she had to admit she had absolutely no idea how or where to find them.”
Does she find this new beginning? You must read the book for yourself and find out.
Hearts and Minds certainly lives up to its title, bringing the reader in touch with the hearts and minds of its characters in a way that illuminates their lives, their dilemmas and foibles, while making them so very identifiable and sympathetic. It’s a novel about academia, but also a novel about the delicate balancing acts of life. It’s the kind of novel you want all your friends to read (although I’m loath to loan my copy to anyone, as it’s too precious to risk losing!)
I know it’s a novel I’ll return to again and again, one I will crave to re-read as years go by, just as you would wish to sit down and share a cup of tea with dear old friends.
by Rosy Thornton
published 2007, by Headline Publishing Group