The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Author: Margot Livesey
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Scottish / 1950s / 1960s / Girl's School /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (1/24/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did -- I couldn't put this book down!
One-sentence summary: Orphan Gemma Hardy seeks out love and family as she bounces from hateful family to boarding school to employment in 1960s Scotland.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- it's so atmospheric and pretty -- plus it references a theme in the story, from a sermon Gemma's uncle wrote about islands and rocks connecting people.
I'm reminded of...: Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Greig
First line: We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year.
Do... I desperately want to vacation in both Scotland and Iceland now?: YES. Place is a character in this novel, nostalgic and moody and atmospheric, and I loved it.
Do... I love that Livesey shared her playlist for this novel?: YES. Sigur Ros and Leonard Cohen (among others) -- yum!
Am... I wicked grateful I have a chance to catch Livesey at a local reading?: YES. I was dead ill while she was touring February, so I'm thrilled I'll get to catch her at the Boston Public Library in a few weeks!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy! The language is lovely, the story is marvelous, and as an homage to Jane Eyre, it is familiar -- but Livesey also makes Gemma new and wholly hers.
Why did I get this book?: I love orphan girls and boarding schools and was intrigued by the Jane Eyre connection.
Review: The first line of this novel -- We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year. -- echoes that of Charlotte Brontë's classic Jane Eyre -- There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. However, while Livesey's take echoes and mirrors the classic, she has also created an original and appealing heroine that I fell in love with and wanted to have as a friend.
Gemma, like Jane, finds herself an unloved and unwanted outsider in her aunt's home after her beloved uncle dies. Desperate only to connect, to be loved, to be a part of someone's life, Gemma attends a girl's school as a working girl, doing housework and other menial labor to earn her keep. Like Brontë's Jane, Livesey's Gemma has a strong moral compass: Gemma is determined to do what she can for herself, and she has the dogged determinism of a girl who thinks if she just works hard enough, her rewards -- friends, a job, love -- will come in time. (In some ways, I found bits of myself in 10-year old Gemma: goody two-shoes, as she was teased, who just wanted love and learning. I flashed back to 5th grade while reading this whole section!)
Like in Jane Eyre, Gemma takes employment as a governess (or, in this case, an au-pair), and she finds herself in love with her dashing, mysterious employer, Mr. Sinclair. There's a secret, of course, and a panicked flight, and resolution, and while all those elements reflect Jane Eyre, the more contemporary setting and the attitude and mores of 1960s Scotland took the story and the characters in a new direction that I just loved. (Although, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't wholly buy the romance with Gemma and Mr. Sinclair -- but I also didn't get the romance between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre.)
There's a Gothic feel to the novel, with Gemma's hideous girl's school and the despicable Mrs. Bryant, and later, the moodiness of Mr. Sinclair and his past. I don't want to give away the secret of Mr. Sinclair but I appreciated Livesey's handling of this famous twist. I was apprehensive this would get cartoon-y or very into melodramatic gothic, but Livesey was consistent with the mood and the characters.
And the writing. Livesey is just a great writer -- end of story. (Ha, a kind of pun!) The story flowed -- I hesitate to say 'raced', because I didn't feel like I was running so much as caught in the prose -- and I just didn't want to put this book down. I was hanging on every lovely word.
I have to confess, Jane Eyre isn't my favorite Brontë novel, so I didn't anticipate having problems with this novel. I love the 'what if?' feel of Jane Eyre having to navigate her story in an era where women ostensibly have more freedom, where class differences are more and less rigid, and there's greater opportunity for someone to strike out on their own. This would make a marvelous book club selection, not only for its connection with Jane Eyre but also for the themes and moods Livesey employs. This was another book I regretted finishing and that, despite its heft, I wanted to be twice in size just so I could have more time with Gemma Hardy.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Flight of Gemma Hardy to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 3/23. For another chance to win, see my interview with Margot Livesey.