Set mostly in 1960s Scotland, Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a contemporary retelling of Jane Eyre. The daughter of an Icelandic father and Scottish mother, Gemma seems to be followed by bad luck: first her mother dies, then her father drowns, and she is taken from her home in Iceland to live with a Scottish uncle when she is still a young child. When her beloved uncle also dies, Gemma is left in the care of an aunt who despises her and cousins who bully her.
Her aunt ships her off to boarding school, and though Gemma is initially happy to get away from her wretched relatives, she quickly learns that life at boarding school has its own unique set of hardships. Those are troubling years, and when its finally time for her to move on, she finds herself little better than when she first arrived; she has no home to return to and little money to tide her over. As a last resort, she finds a job as an au pair, watching over Mr. Sinclair’s headstrong niece on the remote Orkney Islands of northern Scotland.
Anyone with even a remote familiarity with Jane Eyre will pick up on the similarities between both books. It’s been years since I’ve read Jane Eyre, but if my memory serves me correctly — granted, it’s been tainted by Jane Eyre film adaptations in the intervening years as well — The Flight of Gemma Hardy is pretty faithful to the original story. Yet even though most of the book was predictable due to my familiarity with the plot, I thought found it surprisingly fresh.
Rather than being set in dreary England, the book takes readers to the scenic landscapes of Scotland and Iceland. In addition to carrying the weight being orphaned and set adrift in childhood, Gemma yearns to learn more about her cultural heritage, and her desire to learn more about her parents takes her on an additional quest to Iceland. I also found the characters refreshing. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that since this is set in the 1960s, let’s just say that readers get to meet and hear about characters that the Brontë sisters could never have gotten away with.
The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that I found the turning point for Gemma and Mr. Sinclair underwhelming. Jane Eyre spoiler alert (I know it’s hella old and you’ve probably at least seen one of the movies, but I hate spoilers; just highlight the text): If you recall in Jane Eyre, Jane is horrified to discover that Mr. Rochester has another wife, which completely crushes and nearly kills Jane, and causes her to flee. There’s a similar scene in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but I had to flip back and read the big secret a few times to make sure I understood it — I know times have changed, but I still honestly don’t see what the big deal is, so I found Gemma’s reaction overblown.
If not for that one misstep, I would’ve thought the book was close to perfect. Even with that misstep, I really enjoyed the book and was pretty obsessed with finishing it. It’s very obvious that the book is a retelling of Jane Eyre, but there are just enough differences — including a different ending — that allow the book to shine on its own. It’s a keeper!
The Flight of Gemma Hardy was released on paperback on June 26, 2012 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.