Rebecca Gowers The Twisted Heart (2009)
Kit is an exceptionally tall postgraduate student at Oxford specializing in nineteenth century English literature. One of Kit's problems is that she thinks too much, tormented when she wants to relax by the "shiver of mental connections". But she has a fair bit of self-awareness about her faults, and has found that one way to stop herself thinking is to engage in activities leading to physical exhaustion. So, as the novel opens, we find her in a dance class in a bit of Oxford away from the halls of academe, where she meets a mysterious man who shakes up her expectations. She takes him for a bit of tough guy, and is quite thrown to discover that he is, in fact, a maths don.
Kit is good at compartmentalizing her life: research will be done from this day to that day; these hours will be set aside for stopping thinking; if she needs casual sex, that will be fitted in too in a rather cold manner. Meeting the mystery man starts to chip holes in her closeted self-assurance. The mystery man "infiltrated disorder"; worse still, she starts to feel "a sense of her own insignificance".
It took next to no time lying in bed for her to become consciously unhappy. In a book, she thought, her decision not to go back to the dance club would be the hilarious prelude to her going back to the dance club. But not even in her worst nightmares did she behave like a girl from a hilarious book.
At the same time, an interesting side-line of her research starts to absorb more and more of her time and we are drawn into the tale of the mysterious parallels between the brutal slaying of Nancy in Dicken's Oliver Twist and a grisly series of murders of prostitutes (fifty years before Jack the Ripper) in Victorian London. A further element of danger is added to what is fundamentally a quirky love-story: her mysterious maths don has a brother mixed up in the Oxford underworld (I never thought I'd type those words!) and Kit's armour of self-possession is dealt a further series of blows by her lover's obligations to his brother. What does it mean to love someone - to let someone inside?
She... felt inexplicably deflated as he leant against the porch wall. Even though, on the occasions when they kissed, she would impulsively observe to herself that this implied an intimacy she certainly didn't feel, she would still have liked to be kissed.
I enjoyed this book: it is a promising love story - you know, you occasionally want to slap the lovers - with a contemporary feel but with a satisfying amount of old-fashioned romance about it. The Dickens' stuff was fascinating and I keep thinking that I must go back to Dickens again. I loved the academic atmosphere. Having been a graduate student in an Oxbridge college, I felt it was carried off with very great verism. Her supervisor was spot on. And, yes, graduate students do think too much and dance too little.
PS I enjoyed Harriet Devine's review of this book here (which is why I added it to the TBR).
If you liked this... I'm ashamed that I haven't read Oliver Twist despite my love of Dickens. I think the film put me right off. My next task.