Not that the book doesn't have its thought-provoking and heart-wrenching moments. It tackles some very pertinent contemporary issues in education as well as the tangle of moral dilemmas raised by the offer of a much-needed donation of funds to the college, which doesn't come entirely free of strings. The library is crumbling and there's pressure to offer financial assistance to impoverished potential students, but there are those (like Ros Clarke) who will not countenance the injection of such potentially tainted cash under any circumstances. Points of principle swarm and clash.
Thornton shows a finely nuanced appreciation of the private inner tussles between altruism, self-interest and political principle in all of the players, and how these manifest themselves when it comes to arguing individual corners and casting votes. If we didn't already know, I think we could guess from these scenes from the inner workings of the college that this book is written by an 'insider'.
While James and Martha very much take centre stage, there are lots of little wry and amusing sub-plots being played out at the same time - the girls' drinking club with strange initiation rituals; the uptight secretary and the saga of the kettle; Dame Emily's tastes in interior design; the love life of Darren the Dean; the archaic rituals of formal college dining; and, of course (this being Cambridge) various incidents involving bicycles.
But the great joy of this book for me was getting to know James Rycarte and Martha Pearce. They are the most absolutely believable characters. They're so real you feel you could just hug them. In fact, I keep thinking that I have hugged them! I was very sorry to part company with them at the end - there's a real sense that they are still out there, living and breathing and moving on with their lives, despite the fact that it's several weeks since I turned the final page.
You'll have got the general idea, by now that I enjoyed this book enormously and would warmly recommend it as a good traditional kind of read that will stay in the mind and leave you wanting more. You can find out more about the author (who is - surprise! - a Cambridge academic) and read more reviews of Hearts & Minds on her website.
My copy of Hearts & Minds arrived courtesy of BookRabbit.
I think we all know now (if we didn't know before the age-banding crisis) that book covers (especially of fiction) are very much the preserve of publishers these days. Authors can count themselves lucky to be allowed any say in the matter at all. Covers are part of Marketing, and Marketing, as we all know, is everything.
What does the cover of this book say to you? If 'chick-lit' didn't spring immediately into your mind I'd be very surprised indeed.
Such unsubtle 'genre branding' might (I suppose) increase supermarket sales but to attempt to 'guide' regular book buyers who browse in 'real' bookshops (or indeed online) in this way is, in my view, a mistake and can only limit sales, not increase them. Readers of good, thoughtful fiction appreciate good, thoughtful covers on their books.
To me, this cover, with its pastel shades and whimsical hearts and flowers and dove shrieks 'light, fluffy, inconsequential holiday reading for women only'.
I do so resent the current assumption by publishers that every book has to be squished into a 'genre' for a bit of easy niche-marketing. It's dumbing down in every sense. But the worst of it is, that in this case the publishers have quite literally got it wrong. They have simply picked the wrong 'genre'! I seriously doubt that the twentysomething woman looking for light and sexy beach-read would get very far with this. What can they have been thinking of?
To be perfectly honest, I would never have picked up this book if I'd seen it in a bookshop. And if that exposes me as some kind of literary snob, then so be it. This cover completely belies the nature of the novel and in my view does a huge disservice both to the author and to potential buyers - especially to potential male buyers, whom I simply can't imagine would entertain the idea that a book with a cover like this could possibly be of any interest to them. By deciding to 'go girly' the publishers have alienated this book's entire potential male audience and reinforced that tired old assumption that books by women can only be for women. What nonsense! This is an intelligent book about people, for people.
So, chaps, please buy it online (or get a willing woman to buy it for you in a shop), carefully affix the manly cover of your choice (or plain brown paper) over the top of the silly one it comes with, then read and enjoy.