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Monday, February 6, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-206422-6
Hardcover, $25.99

I first read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre a few months ago on my Kindle while on the treadmill. I can't believe I had never read it, but better late than never, right? I loved it, and so when I heard that there was a retelling of Jane Eyre titled The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I was excited to read it.

The story's setting has been moved to Scotland and Iceland in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Gemma is an orphan, whose mother's brother and family took her in when she was a young child after her father died. Her mother died when Gemma was just a toddler.

Gemma's uncle, a minister, loved her and treated her well, but when he died in a tragic accident, his family began to treat Gemma badly. Her aunt and three cousins treated her worse than a servant, because according to them, Gemma was freeloader who contributed nothing to the household.

When Gemma was ten, her evil aunt sent her to a boarding school. It was hard to believe, but school was worse than living with her cruel aunt and cousins. The students beat and stole from her. The head of the school humiliated her in front of everyone. She was a 'scholarship' student, so she earned her keep by working like a dog.

She had only one friend, and studied hard, hoping someday to get a job as a teacher and return to her homeland of Iceland and find her real family. When the school is forced to close, Gemma takes the only job she can get as a tutor for a young girl on an estate on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, owned by the wealthy and mysterious  Mr. Sinclair.

So the first part of the novel hews very closely to Jane Eyre; if you read that book, you pretty much knew everything that was going to happen. This puzzled me somewhat, thinking that it isn't difficult to take the plot of a long beloved classic and make a few differences, updating it.

There is a big mystery in Jane Eyre, a big secret that Mr. Rochester kept from Jane that caused her to flee. Mr. Sinclair has a secret in this novel too, and this is where the author diverges from Miss Bronte's book and creates her own story.

Gemma falls in love with Mr. Sinclair, agrees to marry him, but when his secret is revealed, she runs away. I didn't truly understand why Gemma ran away, as Mr. Sinclair did not have a mad wife in the attic, but his dishonesty drove her away nonetheless.

Her troubles begin when she is robbed and has no money or place to go. She, like Jane, is rescued by a mystery man, the local postman. His sister and her friend take Gemma in, and after a while, Gemma feels like she belongs.

She finds a job as a tutor for a young boy, and comes to care for the boy and his family. While Gemma feels that she has found her place in life, she still feels insecure, like it could all be taken away from her in a moment. She longs to go home to Iceland.

Gemma makes a few bad decisions, but ends up discovering her parents' family in Iceland. This part of the book really tugged at me, and the setting in Iceland added a unique aspect to the book. I have never read anything set in Iceland, and it made me curious to  learn more about it.

I liked the second half of the book better than the first; Livesey creatively uses the Jane Eyre template to  build a new story, with a scrappy young heroine who appeals to the reader. I fell in love with the people of Aberfeldy, the town in which Gemma ends up.  And Gemma's reunion with her family is so touching. The ending is familiar to readers of Jane Eyre;  how could it be any other?     

I loved the unique setting of Scotland and Iceland, although it seemed that the time of the 1950s and '60s was less relevant to the story. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a terrific companion read to Jane Eyre, and Gemma is a worthy successor to the great 19th century heroines in literature.

rating 4 of 5

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