In brief, the novel takes place over the course of a year at an all women’s Cambridge (UK) college called St. Radegund’s, or St. Rad’s for short. The well loved Head of House, Dame Emily, has retired and the new head of the college is James Rycarte, former BBC correspondent. It turns out having worked in war zones comes in handy for Rycarte in his new job. He is the first man to head the college and there is a certain segment of teachers and students who are not happy about it. But Senior Tutor Martha Pearce becomes an alley and friend.
Martha is only 42. She has served ten years as Senior Tutor. She is the youngest to have ever filled the position and she has done an admirable job. But the position is an appointed one and her appointment is over at the end of the year. She has to find a new job but is no longer eligible for teaching because in her current post she has had no time to do research or publish. She is stressed out by this, stressed by the politics, and the attempts by staff and students to force Rycarte to leave. On top of college politics she has a slug of a husband who calls himself a poet but hardly ever writes anything and when he does it is only in Italian so she doesn’t even know if he is a good poet. Her 17 year-old daughter has dropped out of school and is sinking fast into depression. And her mother has become disturbingly forgetful.
I found Martha to be a very interesting character. Integrity and hard work are important to her. She strives to help her students in any way she can and always works to find ways to give them a voice in the running of the college. She worries that she is a bad mother because she spends so much of her time at work. She isn’t a bad mother at all, in fact she is good at mothering just about everyone. Though she does seem to find it easier to mother her students than to mother her daughter. Perhaps it is the emotional attachment that frustrates her efforts with her daughter. It is easier to comfort and help someone when you aren’t wrapped up in the outcome.
While the main story is about Martha and Rycarte, there are lots of other little side stories involving college staff and students that fill in the nooks and crannies, making Hearts and Minds a well-rounded novel that is enjoyable to read. It has been a long time since I have lived at a college, and that one American, but the students and their antics ring true. In fact, the whole novel feels eerily realistic. But that is part of its charm. The reader gets to be on the outside looking in at the craziness which is academia. And since it isn’t us who have to navigate the political minefield, we can sit back, relax, and laugh.