A Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Before I borrowed this title from the library, I'll admit I was drawn into a storyline set in Scotland. A cover description, that, in a hurried examination, seemed slightly similar to the story of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Slightly is not even the word.
Yes, those things kind of got me. And so I read.
Gemma Hardy, daughter of an Icelandic fisherman and a Scottish mother, is left in the care of her doting uncle and witch-of-an-aunt, after accidents claim the lives of both her parents. When Gemma's uncle drowns by falling through a crack in the ice one winter, her poor life is turned upside down. Forced to relocate to a boarding school, hired on as a working girl to earn her keep, Gemma quickly learns to perform her chores quickly and quietly, without an attachment in the world. Years later, Gemma finds an au pair position on a small estate and farm in the Orkneys. Affections are explored with a Mr. Sinclair, family mysteries unveiled, urging Gemma to flee without a penny. One hindrance after another leaves Gemma broken and desperate for work, unable to locate a single soul of charitable reputation, the author unearths questions of what it is to be good and Christian in the world. The audience travels distant shores, meets many interesting characters and roots for Gemma until the end.
When I initially finished the novel, I was pleased. It was a simple and entertaining read. I had loved Jane Eyre, and felt that the author managed to retell the story in a manner that was fitting and tasteful. Gemma is a likeable character, with a good (for the most part) head on her shoulders, determined to do things for herself (her largest goal being a pupil at university). Unlike Jane, Gemma is much more independent, and rightly so, as Livesey's sets her story up throughout the late 50s and early 1960s. The author manages to capture a changing landscape. We hear stories of families recovering after substantial losses in two world wars, women going to work outside of the home and brief encounters with topics like lesbianism and sex that would have had lady Jane blushing something crimson - if not falling over completely. I really enjoyed the novel because of this spin on the adaptation. Even after she falls for Mr. Sinclair, a man 20 years her senior, she manages to break free and seek the answers she's always wanted, those of her family and origins and what her life might have offered if things had worked out differently. Even in the end, we see Gemma pursuing the plans she's mapped out for herself despite the turn of events.
While the characters were well drawn out and captivating, there was no one, in particular, that I was drawn to as much as Gemma. The landscapes of the two countries seemed to offer boundless possibilities on behalf of the writer, but was lacking, in my opinion. While there were a few moments of beautiful description, this language was generally saved for details of the avian life that thrived around her (Gemma is fascinated by winged creatures). I wanted the story to come alive a little more than it did. Furthermore, just like Jane's adoration for Rochester always dumbfounded me, I'll admit that Gemma and Mr. Sinclair didn't do it for me either. I'm hard to please.
To be fair, I did enjoy it and highly recommend it to any fan of the famous Jane Eyre. I'll also note that this is an exact retelling of Jane's story, but think mostly modern.. 60s modern, that is. This, for me, was a bit of a let down as I expected it to be a little more loosely based, but can't deny that I really did enjoy it.