Tuesday 8 July 2008

Hearts and Minds

In Hearts and Minds, Rosy Thornton takes us into the heart of academia, with a warm, witty and wise tale from a fictitious Cambridge college.

James Rycarte, a former BBC correspondent-turned-top-executive, is the newly appointed Head of the all-female St Radegund's College - a position formerly held exclusively by women, most recently his sainted predecessor, Dame Emily, in whose flounced floral chambers James now finds himself ensconced. It's all rather bewildering for a man whose previous connection with academic life ended when he graduated more than three decades ago. From the start, it's clear that he's not going to have an easy ride in his new job. His appointment is still strenuously opposed by some determined members of the college hierarchy, chief among them the imposing Dr Ros Clarke, 'a woman who knew her own mind . . . She would have him out by the end of Full Easter Term'.

Considerably more sympathetic to James's position and determined to help him make a go of it is the Senior Tutor of St Radegund's, Martha Pearce. Fortysomething, dedicated and serious, Martha is constantly beset by guilt - 'professional, familial and horticultural' - a juggler between family and career, but no overstated fictional archetype. Her dilemmas are handled by Thornton with huge sensitivity, and while it is easy to empathise with Martha, the very qualities which make her such a lovely character can at times make the reader yearn to take her to one side and give her a teeny bit of a shake.

As well as having a new Master to settle in, student unrest and rent strikes to deal with, plus her own career to worry about (her tenure as Senior Tutor runs out at the end of the year), Martha has problems at home. Her poet husband is on a long and apparently aimless 'sabbatical' and seems mainly interested in drinking wine and taking himself off to Italy at inconvenient junctures. Then there's her mother, who is showing the first scary signs of dementia. Meanwhile Martha's 17-year-old daughter, Lucia, has removed herself from school and, protesting that she wants to 'write', seems instead to be sliding into inertia and depression. The minefield of mother and daughter interaction is delicately trodden, as is Martha's bewilderment at the crisis which has crept up on her marriage by stealth.

These intimacies are offset by the larger world of college life, involving a large cast of well-drawn, wholly believable characters, and this is what helps to make Hearts and Minds such a 'comfortable' read. There's something very nineteenth-century about it. I wouldn't say it's 'cosy', exactly, but it's definitely a novel one can sit back and sort of expand into in a wholly satisfying way.

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.

And that would be that, were it not for one major quibble I have with this book. [Rant alert, rant alert.] And it is a quibble, I hasten to add, which has absolutely nothing to do with the author or with the novel itself. Those of a nervous disposition please leave the room now.

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.


monix said...

Well said, J. Your review makes me add this book to my wish list but, like you, I would walk straight by it in the bookshop, not being attracted to the chicklit genre. Until the recent debate about age-banding, I had no idea that authors had so little influence over the cover designs of their books. It must be like having your child's wardrobe chosen by a stranger!

Juliet said...

M - publishers vary in this respect. In the non-fiction sector I work it in, it is quite usual to ask authors for suggestions as to cover design, but then not many people are going to buy a law book because they're attracted by its cover! In fiction publishing, however, it's reached a ridiculous state of affairs, where covers (and even titles) are frequently imposed on authors wholly against their will. As Philip Pullman said regarding the recent age-banding meeting with the Publishers' Association:

'every author in the world knows what “consultation” means: it means the publishers saying “This is the cover of your new book” and our saying “Well, it’s horrible”, and their replying “Well, tough”. “Full” consultation, I suppose, would mean that plus lunch.'

Anonymous said...

I'm touched by your lovely review, Juliet - and so glad you enjoyed the book.

Your talk of cover design - and plain brown paper! - also touched a chord with me. The pigeon-holing of novels by their packaging is a deeply frustrating trend. This was my penn'orth on the subject on the Vulpes Libris book site:



Anonymous said...

I've just taken three books off the recycling pile, J; they are by three different, very accomplished (female) authors and produced by three different publishing houses. None of the books could possibly be described as 'chick-lit' but all have covers that use soft-focus shots of cropped female figures and blue predominates. In fact, two of the covers could be interchangeable, despite enclosing narratives that are poles apart. What happened to imagination and creativity and talented illustrators?

Juliet said...

Hi Rosy - Thanks for the link. Great piece (which appeared before VL became part of my essential daily blog diet - so the brown paper thing is pure coincidence I can assure you!). I do so agree with all you say - despite the slightly tongue-in-cheek conclusion. I fear that a subsidiary rant of my own on this issue will be coming along soon!

Juliet said...

D - You are so right, but unfortunately talented illustrators, if they want the work, have to toe the publishers' line. And the publishers have got it into their heads that we are so stupid that if we liked one novel with a blue cover then we'll immediately buy another that looks almost identical. At what happens when a truly original designer is allowed to do something new? In the case of Petra Börner (http://www.borner.se/), who's responsible for the fabulous Lloyd Jones covers, the integrity of her work is ruined by a huge non-removable 'sticker' proclaiming Mister Pip a Richard and Judy Bookclub choice! For some good rants about bad covers and some excellent appreciations of good ones I can heartily recommend http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Juliet, I enjoyed H&M enormously, and think your review captures its spirit very well.

It's true that authors only have consultation rights over covers, but even that's a recent clause, which was fought for over many years by the Society of Authors and The Writers Guild: time was, not so long ago, when many writers only discovered what the jacket of their book was like when their author's copies arrived. The difference now is that it's not just an editorial decision: sales and marketing have their say too - not unreasonably, to my mind, since they're the ones actually trying to persuade the buyers (Waterstones, Asda, the giant wholesalers...) to buy it - but I know that's a development that offends many authors mightily. And if Tesco, say, with 20% of the total market and perhaps 60-70% in some sectors, say that they won't buy the book without a more commercial cover, what's a publisher to do?

All in all, there's more blood shed between writers, agents and editors than there is over just about anything else, not least because it's such an obvious thing to blame when sales aren't as good as hoped for. Publishers do vary, mind you: my UK editor likes to present me with a more-or-less finished article, my US editor is keen for input. As I only know what I like when I see it, I'm rather glad they don't ask for more than that.

Juliet said...

Hi Emma - thanks for your comment. I do appreciate that the Tescofication of the marketplace means that publishers are now in exactly the same position as strawberry-growers and sausage-makers. But - to stretch the analogy slightly - whereas Tesco's demands have resulted in the production of an awful lot of uniform, bland and tasteless strawberries (which look delicious but aren't), in the case of Hearts & Minds the publishers have selected a supermarket-friendly cover which implies that this is a bland and insipid novel when in fact it is both substantial and delicious on the inside. The cover's 'serving suggestion' makes it appear unappetising to precisely those who would most enjoy it, in my view.

You seem to have been very much luckier with the cover of The Mathematics of Love, which is currently waiting near the summit of my TBR mountain. Its visually interesting design intrigues and invites. I am very much looking forward to diving in.

I do love your blog, by the way. Another essential destination on my daily blog rounds!

Anonymous said...

The cover trivializes the book! I would never be lured to pick it up on that basis, which might be shallow, but when faced with a wall of books, one has to make choices.

Jane Badger said...

Well I am shallow, and would pick up the book because I like a bit of chicklit every now and then, so I would be in the band of the agreeably surprised, having not got quite what I thought I was going to but something I'd enjoy anyway. I do entirely agree with what you say, Juliet, about the visual banding of covers. The ironic thing is that when you do finally get something new and different that works (eg Nick Sharratt and his work on children's books) it then produces oceans of more or less good me-toos.

Susie Vereker said...

Oh dear, Juliet, have now had to send off yet another order to Amazon on the strength of your recommendation. But you are absolutely right about covers. The publishers ask the writer what do you think and you say well, it's a bit girly, isn't it? We like it, they say. And that's the end of your input, except I did manage to point out that no one would be able to read the spine of An Old-Fashioned Arrangement unless there was more of a contrast between the spidery font and the background.
By the way, originally Transita did try to apply a kind of age-banding by aiming at women over 45!

Kim Velk said...

Hi Juliet -
Astute, as usual, (and not a rant). You have us all thinking...
As you know, I am a lover of book covers, at least old ones, sometimes to the point that I don't much care what's in the book. I wonder how these will fare in the estimation of future generations?

Anonymous said...

Juliet, glad you approve of TMOL's cover - I do too. Headline have taken a rather different route with A Secret Alchemy, which is now up on my blog, but I love that too.

I'm impressed that anything ever actually reaches the summit of your TBR pile. Mine seems to stay the same, while my actual reading is impulse snatches from the shelves, or the floor, or the bookshop...

Juliet said...

Anon - agree about choices. And first impressions of an unfamiliar title or author name are (if seen in a bookshop, rather than read about in a review etc) inevitably based on apperances before we get as far as picking it up to read the blurb or flick through it.

Jane - yes, unfortunately all kinds of third-rate childrens' books are dressed up to look as identical as possible to first-rate ones. But kids aren't anything like as stupid as publishers believe and they get wise to it after the first couple of disappointments.

Susie - 'kerching'! Age-branding for the over-45s? What a ghastly idea! What would such a genre be called? Something patronising, no doubt. 'Menolit'? 'Greylit'? 'Certain-age-lit'?

Kim - I doubt they will date as well as the original Penguin covers, that's for sure!

Emma - Love the new cover - it's excellent - and agree with the commenter who remarks on the name taking precedence over the title. A sure sign you've Arrived! There is nothing systematic about my TBR mountain, I can assure you - a trip to a bookshop or a charity shop can change all my 'plans' in an instant.

Susie Vereker said...

Juliet, the name is Hen Lit! It's not such a bad idea to feature a main protagonist/heroine over 45 though. The original thought was to balance out all the chick lit. It would take too long to discuss the various genres of women's commercial fiction and whether, indeed, there should be books aimed at females at all but there are such books and that's a fact of publishing and bookselling life. But it became clear that all the Transita books were different from each other and some appealed to all ages, male or female, so they dropped the Hen Lit tag.
Actually, I had made a resolution to stop blogging and get writing so had better do so.

Juliet said...

Hen Lit! Well that certainly ruffles my feathers and makes me cluck! I think the reasons they dropped the idea show, once again, how age-branding, genre branding etc can serve to narrow rather than broaden the appeal of books and make certain readers feel excluded.

Good luck with the writing resolution - blog-reading/surfing/writing can take up *far* too much time if one isn't very careful!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I diversify from the theme slightly, but I have noticed the need to 'prettify' a large proportion of the front covers of any novel that is by a woman that isn't either a thriller or a classic.

Despite being bogged down with life and work and having no spare time, I have still thought about volunteering at my local charity bookshop; just so I can sort through their 'Romance' section.

By their criteria it appears that any book that has a pastel colour on the cover, a ladies shoe/handbag/dress and failing that is just written by a woman, then that is enough for it to be removed from their 'fiction' shelves and implanted in the romance section. Many a time I have extracted Margaret Forster, Drabble or Atwood from the clutches of Mills and Boon.

Perhaps it is the 'marketing guys' fault, or perhaps it is the public's inabilty to dissasociate the colour pink with chick lit, after years and years of conditioning...?