Academic fiction is a sub-genre of literary fiction. Academic fiction set at a women's college must then be a sub-sub-genre. The small number of books that fit the bill may explain why Rosy Thornton's publishers have packaged this book as chick lit or romance; they didn't know what to do with it.
It's a shame because I could have passed this by -- the cover art is cartoony and features hearts and flowers and a pink bicycle. But inside is a clever, sophisticated tale about life at a women's college in Cambridge, England.
Thornton has created a fictional college, St. Radegund's, which has just hired a man to replace the revered Dame Emily as Head of House. James Rycarte's struggle to lead the faculty, students and alumnae of St. Rad's makes a great story. Rycarte is an outsider and a realist with a clear understanding of what the college needs to stay relevant in the 21st Century. He is a perfect foil for the ivory-tower dwellers among the faculty and the spoiled rich girls who are the students.
Only Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor, can help Rycarte save St. Rad's from itself. But Martha has problems of her own, including a depressed daughter, an aging mother and a husband with a midlife crisis.
Thornton's writing is lively and intelligent and her characters are well drawn. I especially loved the minutiae of life at Cambridge. I didn't always understand the roles and relationships (what is a Senior Tutor? A Head Porter?) but it didn't matter. Thornton moves her story forward at a good pace while at the same time providing just the perfect number of engaging details. Anyone who has worked at or even attended a university will recognize the archetypes and get the jokes. (It helps that Thornton is an actual professor at the actual Cambridge University.)
Rosy Thornton doesn't seem to have a U.S. publisher, but her books are available from Amazon.com and from Powells. She's written two other titles that also sound good and she's got a cheerful little Web site at www.rosythornton.com. Fun fun fun.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.