The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey – Book Review

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

For Gemma Hardy, life is full of tragedy. First her Scottish mother dies near their home in Iceland, then the sea claims her fisherman father. For many years after the death of her parents Gemma did find safety in her uncle’s home, but upon his untimely death her life truly falls apart. Suddenly Gemma is left with nothing more than a hostile aunt and disapproving cousins. Just when she thinks she can stand life at home no longer, Gemma is offered the opportunity to escape, to go off to boarding school as a working student.

Livesey makes no secret of the fact that The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The first half of the book, in particular, stays very close to Bronte’s original. In fact, for the first two hundred pages are so, the only significant differences between The Flight of Gemma Hardy and Jane Eyre are the setting (Scotland), the time period (1950s), and the names of the characters.

Gemma’s story begins to diverge more from Jane’s when she is forced to leave school and make her way in the world. Finding a job as an au pair in the Orkneys seems to be a godsend for Gemma. She and her charge, Nell, get along suprisingly well, particularly as Nell ran off her previous nanny. With her employer away in London, Gemma is for the first time essentially the mistress of her own life – until Mr. Sinclair returns and sweeps her away.

Livesey is an incredibly talented writer, her prose flows beautifully and she has re-crafted Bronte’s story in a way that, in all honesty, makes far more sense than the original. The plot holes are fixed and the deus ex machina issues of Jane Eyre virtually eliminated. There are only two real problems in The Flight of Gemma Hardy. The first is Gemma’s reaction upon discovering Mr. Sinclair’s secret, which is not nearly bad enough to justify running away, although Gemma does it in a much more sensible way than Jane. The second is simply how closely The Flight of Gemma Hardy sticks to Jane Eyre for so much of the story. For a reader who has not read Jane Eyre, or who has not read it recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy would likely be a smashing success, but for one who has read it either frequently or recently, the fact that what Livesey has created is more of a modernization than a retelling may very well remove some of the power of the book.

I truly wanted to love The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but having just read Jane Eyre approximately a year earlier it was difficult for the first half of the story to catch my attention. When Livesey’s plot diverged more completely from Jane Eyre I did truly enjoy it, and I’m not entirely sure that anyone but Livesey could have pulled that off. However, I wish her creativity could have been showcased a bit more in the way she retold Bronte’s original. Recommended, particularly if you are well removed from Jane Eyre.

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