“The Flight of Gemma Hardy” by Margot Livesey
That was enough for me. (You know I’m obsessed with “Jane Eyre” right?)
This book is a really good read, but it works best when you take the Bronte comparisons out of the picture and read it on it’s own merits. Essentially, all this book shares with “Jane Eyre” is a basic outline. Gemma, like Jane, goes from being an orphan raised by her terrible aunt to a working girl at a tough boarding school, then becomes an au pair for a semi-mysterious older man who she falls in love with and leaves because of his secrets.
Rather than being a carbon copy, Gemma is a heroine that’s easy to like on her own merits. She’s ballsy and smart and a survivor. She’s also not hung up on God, as Jane Eyre notoriously/frustratingly is. Gemma’s actions are driven less by her religious fanaticism than her own gut instincts. The most interesting parts of this story are her search for herself, and her travels. She’s described at one point as a “wanderer,” and it fits. Gemma’s older paramour, Mr. Sinclair, is a lot more forward about his feelings for his young employee than a certain Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester, who has beguiled and frustrated readers for centuries. (I was delighted that one of my favorite “Jane Eyre” characters got an update, too – Stand back, Blanche Ingram, Coco is all your snootiness consolidated into a few mere chapters.)
Without the melodrama of the moors and fogs and ghosts of Bronte’s original novel, a slight problem arises when certain events seem to not make much sense – namely, Gemma’s reason for leaving her beloved Mr. Sinclair. The reveal of Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife Bertha is certainly a reason not to marry a man. In Mr. Sinclair’s case, let’s just say there’s no madwoman in this attic. (I’m still not entirely sure why Gemma felt the need to run away from the marriage. I guess I’m still thinking about that.) Also, I had an issue with the way Gemma winds up “engaged” to a man named Archie toward the end of the book – it seems a little cliche, a little too much of the unbelievable stuff romantic comedies have been built on. This is a smart girl who could have easily and quickly fixed that whole situation. As far as the “update” aspect goes, with the setting being rural Scotland in the sixties and seventies, sometimes it doesn’t really feel like an “update” at all. Minus the presence of a few pieces of updated technology, like the airplane by which Gemma makes her way back to her roots, a lot of it still takes place in the middle of nowhere and there are a lot of rustic folks doing rustic things.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and breezed through it, driven mostly by the likability of Gemma. It’s a solid read, but it shouldn’t be compared to “Jane Eyre” in any sort of deep way.
Gemma is Gemma, and Jane is Jane, and their stories are both worth telling.
FYI – Ms. Livesey will be in Chicago, reading and signing at Women & Children First on February 28th at 7:30pm. I’m absolutely going, and you should too. 🙂