“Modest Hope”: Rosy Thornton, Hearts and Minds

After that, there was a return to something of the camaraderie which had developed between them during these last two terms and he discovered himself nursing the more modest hope that her departure would not mean a cessation of their friendship.

The last time I wrote about Rosy Thornton here, in a post on her later novel The Tapestry of Love, I identified Hearts and Minds as a book that “now numbers among the little cluster of books I think of as my ‘comfort reading,’ books that I reread when I want to wander mentally away from home without feeling adrift, to be distracted without being distraught or dismayed.” That was in 2011, and to be honest I don’t think I have actually gone back to Hearts and Minds since then, not because I changed my mind about it but because — happily — the cluster of books I reread for amiable diversion is larger than it used to be. It now includes, for instance, a number of romance novels, which provide not so much comfort as cheer.

I wonder if it’s because in the interval I have read so many books with happy endings that on this reread, Hearts and Minds seemed more melancholy than I remembered it. Not that it’s a sad or pessimistic book — far from it. It’s a campus novel, and thus perhaps inevitably satirical — a much kinder, gentler satire than, say, David Lodge’s — but it’s also an intimately human story about well-meaning people trying to make their way forward, as best they can, in their intertwined professional and personal lives. It doesn’t offer either belly laughs or epiphanies, but it’s full of quiet insight and a kind of wry tenderness.

The novel’s paired protagonists are James Rycarte, the charismatic newly appointed Head of St. Radegund’s College, Cambridge who has landed in academia after a career at the BBC, and the college’s Head Tutor, Martha Pearce. Martha’s career as an academic economist has stalled because of her devoted attention to her administrative duties. She likes the work, but her term is nearly up and she’s facing an uncertain future worsened by her teenage daughter’s inertia and withdrawal (which she fears is depression) and her poet husband’s self-indulgent underemployment. Despite the value she places on her work, and the utter dependence of her family on her as the only real earner, Martha is plagued with guilt about her long hours and fragmented attention.

Much of the novel’s plot is devoted to maneuvers around a potential donation that would shore up St. Radegund’s literally sinking foundations but poses what some faculty see as an unacceptable conflict of interest. On this, and on the equally vexing issue of a student strike against rising college rents, James and Martha work together first as colleagues, then as allies, and finally as friends. If you think there’s some romantic potential there, you’re not wrong, but one of my favorite things about the novel is that it’s recognized in but does not become the story. In fact, it’s really only James who develops warmer feelings, but he is too good a man to make them Martha’s problem, even when she lets on that she and her husband may be separating. As for Martha, she may be fed up with her husband and desperate for a change, but that doesn’t mean she’s giving up on him or their life together. It’s all very mature — and that’s one of the other things that struck me about the novel this time, that it’s a realistic novel about the complexities of mid-life and mid-career.

Almost every crisis that looms in Hearts and Minds fizzles out by the end of the novel: as a result, there are neither catastrophes nor epiphanies. Maybe it doesn’t sound all that comforting, but that lack of drama, along with the gentle wit with which Thornton treats all of her well-imagined characters, is what I like about it. This time around it reminded me less of Anne Tyler and more of some Joanna Trollope’s earlier novels, especially A Village Affair or Marrying the MistressHearts and Minds is a little lighter than either of these, but they all have the same commitment to taking everyday life seriously, appreciating its bright spots without too much wishful thinking about how easily we can solve its inevitable problems.

1 Comment to “Modest Hope”: Rosy Thornton, Hearts and Minds

  1. April 26, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    When this first came out it went all round our English Department because it rang so true. One friend in a similar professional situation to Martha, seriously rethought the balance of her working life as a result.

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