JANE EYRE has been one of my all time favorite books since I first read it as a sixth grader. So I was excited to get a chance to read and review THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY which claims to be a reimagining of the classic novel set in post World War II Iceland and Scotland. The parallels between Jane and Gemma are very obvious in the first portion of the book which I felt to be the best. Both Jane and Gemma are smart, spunky, orphans taken in by a loving uncle then despised by his jealous widow. Both girls are mistreated by cousins of similar ages then sent to horrid boarding schools and abandoned by all known relatives. Jane and Gemma overcome horrible school experiences which for both involve the untimely death of their only school friend. However when Jane leaves school and meets Mr. Rochester that novel becomes really interesting to me. In GEMMA HARDY the novel is all downhill once our heroine turns eighteen.
I think the main problem with GEMMA HARDY is I never really believed in the love affair between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair. And Mr. Sinclair's big secret that is revealed on their wedding day and causes Gemma to take flight? I had to read those passages over a couple of times since surely I was missing something as this revelation did not seem to be a dramatic romance breaker. And Gemma is just a little too comfortable lying, stealing and taking advantage of the nice people who help her for me not to want to give her a good shaking and resent her implied happily ever after ending. I was hoping Mr. Sinclair would forget this flighty teenager and find someone nearer his own age. I will say I learned a lot about Iceland and Scottish islands from reading GEMMA HARDY and I couldn't decide whether to give the book three or four stars. I decided to round down to three since the heart pounding gothic romance of JANE EYRE is quite lacking from this updated version.
Margot Livesey's "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" is the story set in the 1960's of a girl who grew up in both Iceland and Scotland prior to the death of her parents. A Scottish uncle takes her in and raises her with as much love as he had for his own children, but then the beloved uncle dies. The aunt intensely dislikes poor Gemma, making her even less than a servant at home, then, when the time is right, sending Gemma to a bleak boarding school. At the school, Gemma is a working girl; she cooks, cleans, and does other chores to pay for her keep there.
Perhaps a year before Gemma would have graduated from the school, it closes because of lack of funds. Gemma then takes a job as a nanny in a remote part of Scotland. She loves the job and the family, but she runs away and takes another job. It seems that every time Gemma finds happiness, something causes her to run from it.
Gemma is an interesting, sympathetic character, strong yet vulnerable. Her one failing is what I stated above: whenever she seems to find happiness, she runs from it. The novel is very well-written. The style was strong yet vulnerable, just like Gemma. I wanted to keep going to see if she would find happiness and not run from it!
There are comparisons between this novel and Bronte's "Jane Eyre." It's been too many years since I've read "Jane Eyre." "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" intrigued me enough to want to pull my ancient copy of "Jane Eyre" down off the shelf and read it.
I see from the review that many readers very much enjoyed this reworking of 'Jane Eyre' set in Scotland in the 1950s and 196os. I guess that's my first problem with it. It is supposed to be taking place at a specific time and place -- but there is no sense of time or place. The Scotland the author depicts is more akin to the 1850s than the 1950s. We meet little Gemma after she has been orphaned and taken in by her uncle's family. Her uncle, a vicar, is kind to her but he dies and the rest of the family turns her in a drudge and locks her in a closet. At this point, I thought I was reading Cinderella -- the cruelty of the family is hard to believe but has a kind of fairytale aspect to it. Modern day cruelty, which we now call abuse, has a much deeper, more evil character. Gemma seems relatively unmarked by all the cruelty she endures. None of it buries very deep into her soul.
Gemma is packed off to a Dickensian boarding school where she has to work as a skivvy in return for an education. Did this kind of things really take place in mid-20th century Britain? We even get the faithful friend dying of consumption -- in this case asthma.
The school is a kind of nasty island cut off from reality. Nowhere in this book in fact does anyone watch TV or listen to the radio. We never hear a pop song in the background. It's a very weird sensation. The author has created her own, barren and unimagined version of a specific time and place -- but her creation is devoid of smell, sound or atmosphere. There are a couple of contemporary references (Yuri Gagarin, Harold McMillan) but they are jarring because there is no sense of Britain as it really was at that time.
Gemma somehow survives school and is packed off the a remote island to become the governess (here called au pair) to a troubled young girl. The Laird, Mr Rochester, (sorry, here he's called Mr. Sinclair) shows up and something that the author depicts as "love" ensues between the 18-year-old Gemma and the 41-year-old Mr. Sinclair. Call me old-fashioned but I found this relationship entirely yucky.
There follow various other complications and adventures before our intrepid heroine achieves whatever it is that she achieves.
It's strange to be so much in the minority about a book and I don't mean to spoil anyone's pleasure in it. But it's not for everyone. If you like books set in a specific time and place and prefer real people with real problems to fairy tales and if you don't care for derivative reworkings of 19th century classics, this book is probably not what you're looking for.
on April 6, 2012
The reviews had me drooling, almost. I'm a fan of the novels of Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Gaskell, and the reviews promised a modern day Jane Eyre. That, Gemma is not. True, the plot is the same: the orphaned au pair Gemma does run away from her fiancé. She does experience difficulties. What's missing is a reason for running. Jane Eyre fled because of the strength of her moral convictions. She was torn between them and her love. Gemma flees because her fiancé lies to her, but she has no moral conviction against lying herself. There is no convincing struggle, thus, no relief when she's reunited to her lover. Modern day heroine Gemma is; Jane Eyre she is not.
on February 23, 2012
I'm quite weary with the modern (should I say "postmodern"?) reliance on bringing back classics in modern form. Why? It's bad enough that the movies and tv rely primarily on reworkings of the old tried and true, but now if we're going to be subjected to endless, not to mention inept, rewrites of book classics, I've really had it. Other reviewers have done a fine job summarizing the plot of this book, so I will not. And, yes, the writer has a fine, lyrical style. If only she had a sense of atmosphere. If only she had some original ideas. If only she could take these ideas to the edge and push them as her more skilled predecessor Charlotte Bronte did. Or perhaps her publisher obliged her to write this. I don't know. But I think "The Flight of Gemma Hardy"s only real merit is that it will encourage young (and older!) women to pull a copy of "Jane Eyre" off the shelf and reread that--or discover its magic for the first time. And maybe that will even lead them on to Emily Bronte and "Wuthering Heights", which, perhaps, will remind us all how much we crave GOOD literature based on original storytelling that emerges from the writer's own creative passions and is not borrowed as a second best, wandering imitation of someone else.
on February 4, 2012
It's always a delight to read a new novel by Margot Livesey and her latest book is no exception. Many reviewers have already said so much about the connection that THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY has to JANE EYRE so I won't comment on that aspect except to say that Livesey has done far more than take Bronte's classic and drop it into the middle of the 20th century: by her choice of the period for GEMMA HARDY, Livesey both has written a book that is a tribute to the original but allows us to read JANE EYRE in a new context, one that rises from the 1960's as a decade in which women faced pressure and expectation to live their lives in traditional roles (wife, mother, caretaker--roles that primarily identified women in relation to others) but also had increasing opportunities to see that they could decide the course of their lives as individual human beings. It's one of the triumphs of Livesey's novel that she does not push the social and political aspect in a forceful way but allows the issues to emerge in a natural way through the rich, fully fleshed lives her characters live, especially her main character--the novel's last line is particularly brilliant in this regard. Because I don't want to spoil it, I will just say that a superficial consideration of the sentence would suggest the novel is one thing but deeper consideration allows us to understand it on several levels.
Taking GEMMA HARDY as a novel on its own, then, Livesey has written a first-rate story of a character who comes fully alive on the first page, when Gemma is a small girl, and then becomes increasingly complex as she grows and we move through the book, following Gemma as an orphan living with an aunt who despises her, a belittled and abused serving girl at a boarding school, and finally as an adult striving to find her place in the world and assert her right to determine the course her life will take. Throughout, Livesey gives us a story that is a model of a compelling narrative.
This is a spectacular novel, one of those rare books that are hard to stop reading, and so you find yourself racing through it page by page while, at the same time, you are sad as you approach its end because you want to delay the moment when it will no longer be in your life as a novel you're reading for the first time.
If you love great fiction, you will read this novel.
In "The Flight of Gemma Hardy," author Margot Livesey presents an updated version of Charlotte Bronte's classic tale of the steadfast orphan Jane Eyre who eventually finds not only love but also a warm place and purpose in a once clearly bleak and coldly shunning world. While Livesey manages to craft a compelling woeful childhood for her Gemma--in this reincarnation, an Icelandic child who is brought to Scotland after her parents' death by a kindly minister uncle--she fails to ignite her heroine's passion or loyalty as an adult enraptured by the Mr. Rochester character.
As a result the reader struggles, as if lost on the foggy moors as Jane was after her disillusionment at the disclosure of Mr. Rochester's true marital state, to understand the chemistry, or lack of, binding "Gemma's" two romantic leads together. Wisely, Bronte provides ample examples of the growing fondness between Jane and Mr. R--they cement their affiliation with the frightening event of Mason's "accident' and the "mums-the-word" calling of the doctor. In addition, the appearance of a beautiful rival in the character of Blanche Ingram expertly feeds Jane's feelings of inadequacy whereas Gemma's more independent movements about the environs of Blackbird Farm suggests other more likely possibilities for relationships more acceptable for her age.
Most heinous of all, Livesey allows her Gemma to slide from the higher ground firmly implemented by the original Jane. This heroine easily lies and steals, making excuses for herself in an extremely 21st century way that any psycho-therapist would be happy to label as reeking of "entitlement" disorder. Our 19th century Jane suffered not from any slipped discs associated with moral backbone--she remains loyal and true, compelled to be simply "Jane" no matter how tough the going gets.
Perhaps Livesey feels that this erosion of moral fiber is indigenous to 20th century sensibilities. This may be so, but Gemma's divergence from a strict compliance with the pureness of more absolute ideals muddies the overall impact of Jane's perfect allegiance towards Mr. Rochester. Throughout the novel, Jane remains true to herself--in "Gemma," this newer heroine uses the excuse of a lack of self-identity to follow whatever direction her malfunctioning moral compass dictates.
Not only are the romantic aspects between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair undeveloped, the portion of the book dedicated to Gemma's life on Blackbird Farm seems hurried with none of the ominous overtones that suggest the real underbelly of clandestine activity taking place in Thornfield's attic rooms. In fact, Mr. Sinclair's secret revelation confessed to Gemma on their would-be wedding day is so nebulously confusing and anti-climatic that this reviewer doesn't quite understand its impact to Gemma's already murky world of confused values.
Be that as it may, if "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" had been marketed as a novel in its own right about a girl struggling to capture her own sense of identity, it would make a fairly interesting read. Gemma's time on Iceland is of particular interest as is her life as a "working girl" student. Because the time of the novel is set in the 60s, this reviewer wonders why the novel was not framed from the perspective of an older Gemma looking back in either a Preface or Epilogue. The serious lack of chemistry and emotional pathos regarding the characters with variables of loneliness, unhappiness, loyalty and love makes "Gemma" a formula that doesn't quite balance out in a way that is both satisfying and consistent to the original story.
Bottom line? As a modernized Jane Eyre, "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" works only on the level that it faithfully follows the timeline of Jane's major life events. However author Margot Livesey fails to capture the angst of a woman madly in love with a man of no scruples that is hiding a terrible secret. Her use of the sixties as a time period falls short as it makes no use of the major events of the time or even of its sensibilities. Nevertheless, strip the Jane Eyre similarities from "The Flight of Gemma Hardy," add some alchemical romance and the reader just might find an interesting read centering around a pragmatic girl struggling to find herself after a life of mis-happenstance. Those who wish to read a "truer" Jane Eyre update, try "Jane where Mr. Rochester is depicted most cleverly as a rock star. Recommended.
Diana Faillace Von Behren
on March 15, 2015
Originally reviewed at http://www.shaelit.com/2012/03/review-the-flight-of-gemma-hardy-by-margot-livesey/
Gemma Hardy is a very pretty book. The sentences are well-constructed and have a pleasing rhythm. Livesey’s voice is the kind that gets stuck in my head and leaves me thinking in that particular style for a few hours. However, it’s merely pretty in the way that many “adult” books are pretty – its prettiness, not its story, is the lure.
The plot and its accompanying tensions are fairly thin. Gemma follows many of the key plot points of Jane line by line. Surly boy cousin who strikes her with a bird book? Check. Locked in a dark space as punishment? Check. Doctor who suggests she go to school? Check. Bad, bad school and hard work? Check. Pompous clergy and mean headmistress? Check. Even the rich girl who’s supposed to be a threat to the Mr. Rochester (here called Mr. Sinclair) character’s heart and the accompanying fortuneteller are present, though both are quickly ushered out again without offering any worry for the reader.
Okay, so maybe the synopsis underplayed the “homage” part of the book. What about the themes? Those are pretty good, right? Jane Eyre had some pretty great themes. Well, as persnickety as Livesey was about keeping plot points in Gemma, she was far more lackadaisical about themes. To me, Jane Eyre had three great hooks: love and redemption, finding a home/family, and gothic superstition, all threaded together by the core underpinnings of Jane’s character, her morality and faith.
Gemma, not so much. There’s some superstition thrown in, thanks to a library ghost boy who doesn’t really add anything, some attempts at telepathy that turn out to be pretty bogus, and Gemma’s fascination with curses. Oh, and Thor. They talk about Thor sometimes, being Icelandic and all. The finding a home/family thing was really Gemma‘s main theme and was hammered pretty hard.
But love and redemption? Nope. Avert your eyes if you really don’t want to know: I still have no idea why, or even technically if, Gemma falls in love with Mr. Sinclair other than the fact that she’s supposed to, per the Jane Eyre guidelines.
This is another example of story falling victim to pretty prose. Why bother describing a growing attraction if we can spend time talking about birds instead? Sex, however, is waved in the reader’s face often, for no apparent reason (hinted girl-on-girl molestation! pedophilia allusions! random necking with a friend’s brother who suddenly appears and then disappears! lesbian lovers! unwed mothers left and right! groping hobos!). And if you’re hoping for some grand betrayal and redemption, a la Jane Eyre, forget it. The grand reveal at the church isn’t so grand, and Gemma’s self-righteousness felt odd and unwarranted.
Then again, Gemma herself felt odd. Livesey strips the Gemma of Jane’s faithfulness, morality, and honesty. She strips her, in my opinion, of motivation. Even her desire to take her exams and go to university often flees her. She also strips Gemma of any real connection with the reader. I found myself struggling to feel what Gemma must be feeling, because she often seemed incapable of feeling any real emotion or at least of convincing me that she does. And that, to me, was the greatest tragedy of all.
I promised never to review a book that I couldn’t say something positive about, so here it is: Iceland sounds like a wonderful place to visit, and Margot Livesey’s sentences are a treat for the style-judging section of my brain.
Points For: Pretty style, strong voice, Iceland, length (at least it’s shorter than Jane Eyre), more insight into the aunt character.
Points Subtracted For: Unnecessary sexuality, detached characters, disappointing climax, lack of a spitfire romantic rival, lack of a taut trajectory.
Good For Fans Of: Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, other authors who irritate me.
Notes For Parents: Many, many sexual situations and allusions, though nothing graphic.
on May 1, 2012
False advertisement because, in my opinion, this novel is a poor excuse for a Jane Eyre remake. Or even a "homage" as the jacket suggested.
Here are some problems I had with this book.
1. There is no placement of time. Most of the time I had to remind myself this book was taking place in the 1950's and 60's. There was a brief mention of a TV in the beginning, but that's really it. There was an airplane ride and fleeting mentions of pop stars, but other than that, this story had no sense of time or world events.
2. The relationship with Mr. Sinclair was never developed. EVER. It was painful to read. He was a paper doll kind of character: flat and dressed up to be what the author needed him to be at certain times.
3. The reasons she left him were absolutely ridiculous. I couldn't believe she was leaving him for such a stupid reason. "I can't believe you lied to me about another man taking your place in the mines during WWII so you could be a war hero. Now I'm going to steal from someone that took me in and cared for me when I had nothing and go on a little vacation to Iceland. But you still have a LOT to make up for Mr. Sinclair!" (Obviously this isn't a real quote. But the situation seemed so comical and contradictory, there really is no other way to present it)
4. Gemma was willing to work and study hard for her exams to get into college. It just really irritated me that someone so determined and hardworking would allow a man to think they were engaged. He misunderstood and she did not want to correct him and hurt everyone. However, this same character was willing to steal from her employer's savings (with an extremely disabled husband). I had HUGE problems with a character with so many inconsistencies. I did not want to read about some Mary Jane with perfect manners and perfect intentions. However, I did not like being presented with a supposedly Jane Eyre-esque character that was unhappy she had to care for a little boy while his grandmother (her employer who gave Gemma a job because someone asked her to, not because she really needed Gemma's help) cared for her ailing husband at the same time Gemma needed to study for her exams. I was just annoyed.
5. Worst ending I have read in a LONG time. Magically he ends up in the seat next to her for her flight back home from her stolen trip to Iceland. She seems to be an aged, knowledgeable woman that has good reason to distrust and despise him. She doesn't. So this makes everything feel like a big fake ending she wrote in 10 minutes to meet a deadline.
The bottom line: If you LOVE Jane Eyre, like I do, please, don't read this book. You'll end the book feeling frustrated and disappointed.
(If you've never read Jane Eyre and might want to some day, you should probably skip this review as it may have some plot spoilers.)
I really wanted to like this book. But while I admire Livesey's style, I was quite disappointed in the overall story. The novel's publishers describe it as a "modern-day Jane Eyre," and therein, for me, lies the problem. I rather enjoy spinoffs or re-visions of classic novels if the writer is both true to the feel of the original and creates something bellievably new. Here, however, Livesey sticks too close to Bronte. Instead of becoming engrossed in the novel, I felt like I was ticking off a sseries of similarities between the two. Gemma has a hateful aunt and three hateful cousins (tick). Gemma is blamed for a fight her cousin started and gets locked into "the sewing room" (tick) where she has some kind of cryptic vision that sets her into hysterics (tick). There's a kindly servant who tries to comfort Gemma (tick). The doctor recommends that Gemma be sent to boarding school as a "working student" (tick) where she makes friends with a sickly girl who later dies in Gemma's arms (tick). The cruel owner/headmistress extends a little kindness (tick) when she finally leaves for a new job as governess (tick) to an eight-year old girl (tick) in a remote, gloomy location (tick). She befreinds the housekeeper, who seems to keep some secrets about the mysterious owner, Mr. Sinclair (tick). Her brother, a taciturn and creepy farmer, keeps hinting that he knows some secrets and that something untoward happened to the love of his life, little Nell's mother (tick--he's the Grace Poole character). Mr. Sinclair, a rather brooding, older man, appears to have the hots for a lovely socialite named Coco (tick), but he discovers an affinity with Gemma (tick) which leads to a proposal (tick). When his big secret (which isn't as awful as Mr. Rochester's) is revealed at the church on their wedding day (tick), Gemma flees (tick). She collapses by the side of the road in a strange town but is rescued by a scholarly young man (tick) who takes her to his sister's home where she a and her girlfriend nurse her back to health (tick). The brother later assumes that Gemma has accepted his proposal; he doesn't love her but figures they can study Latin together (tick).
OK, STOP IT ALREADY!!!! I'm sure you get the picture. In the final section, Livesey finally starts to write a story of her own. But as others have pointed out, Gemma becomes extremely unlikeable at this point. She decides to seek out any living relatives of her dead parents--in Iceland, her father's home country, the place where they lived as a family for a few short years. (Let me interject here that when Andrew asked, "Would you go to Iceland with me as my wife?", Gemma was so eager to get there that she said yes without hearing the last three words . . . ) Since she won't, after stringing him and everyone else along for weeks, marry Andrew (she's still in love with Mr. Sinclair, who really seemed to me to have no personality at all), how will she get to Iceland? Easy: she steals from the kindly grandmother who has hired her to help watch their grandson while she visits her hospitalized and obviously dying husband! Oh, but Gemma leaves a note of apology in the drawer where the money had been, promising to pay it back when she can. Nice girl. And of course, Iceland is perfect. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody loves everybody else. So it doesn't take long for Gemma, now called Fjola, to find her aunt and cousin. As she says goodbye to Iceland, she hears a voice calling to her over the ocean. Of course, it is Mr. Sinclair (tick). And here we go again.
I did like Livesey's writing style and will probably look for more of her novels. But this one, as you can see, was a real disappointment.