Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy

Young Gemma has had a difficult childhood.  Orphaned at a young age, she is taken away from her native Iceland to Scotland by her uncle.  Thanks to his patience and loving attention, she gradually adjusts to her new surroundings and begins to form a close bond with him.  But her happiness is short-lived when her uncle dies suddenly, and her aunt decides Gemma must earn her keep.  Finally, her aunt can no longer tolerate her and applies for a scholarship for Gemma to attend a boarding school.  Gemma has mixed feelings about leaving Yew House which holds happy memories of time spent with her uncle, but at the same time is eager to get away from her cruel aunt and have the chance to get a real education.

Gemma is a very bright young girl and eager to learn, but unfortunately she gets off on the wrong foot at the new school, Claypoole.  Soon she discovers that her "scholarship" had nothing to do with her intelligence, but rather that she has been taken on as a "working girl," living in cramped conditions and enduring the bullying of the other working girls.  The only bright note in Gemma's life at Claypoole is her friendship with a young asthmatic, Miriam, who tells her:
...people's feelings aren't like arithmetic; they don't always add up.  As for telling you, I don't know if I can.  Some things you can learn from other people and books; some you have to live through.
When Gemma turns 17, Claypoole is forced to close its doors, and Gemma accepts a position in the remote Orkney Islands as a tutor for a young girl.  At Blackbird House, Gemma eventually meets Nell's guardian, the handsome Mr. Hugh Sinclair.  At last, Gemma seems to have found someone who truly cares for her, but doubts and fears drive her away.  It is not until she makes a voyage of self-discovery that Gemma can accept true happiness.

If this plotline sounds familiar, it's not surprising.  The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a retelling of Charlotte Bronte's Gothic classic, Jane Eyre.  Author Margot Livesey's version begins in the 1950's, a time when women without financial means had more options than becoming either a servant or a governess.  Yet Livesey makes Gemma's predicament plausible. Similar elements of the story are different, but parallel those of Bronte's novel.  Most importantly, Gemma Hardy, like Jane Eyre, is a spunky, independent girl who captures the reader's sympathy and admiration.

Nothing whatsoever to do with this book, my first irises are blooming and enjoying the rain finally falling on my garden.

Gemma's character is very attuned to nature; she is drawn to the sea, and her most precious possession is a book from her uncle, Birds of the World. I don't remember if Charlotte Bronte included so much natural description (it's been awhile since I read Jane Eyre), but the view of nature seen through Gemma's eyes is a delightful addition to Livesey's novel. If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Mr. Sinclair's dark secret, the revelation that drives Gemma away, seems rather weak.  Granted, I wasn't expecting a mad wife hidden on the third floor of Blackbird House, but I did expect something a little more dramatic than what is revealed.

Jane Eyre has been one of my all-time favorite books, ever since I first read it as an impressionable young teenager.    I daydreamed about the handsome but mysterious Mr. Rochester and the improbable romance between him and "plain" Jane, and I've always wanted to visit the English moors that helped to inspire the Bronte sisters.  The Flight of Gemma Hardy didn't fuel any fantasies for me, but then, I'm not the daydreaming, romantic teenager I once was:)  Fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy Gemma Hardy and finding the parallels between the two novels.  But even if you've never read that classic, you will enjoy the story of Gemma, a girl who rises above poverty and a difficult childhood to achieve her dreams and finally find happiness.

Disclaimer:  No compensation of any kind was received for this review.  I review only books I like and think others would enjoy reading;  I either purchase my own copy or, as in the case of this book, check them out from my local library. 

For other suggestions for good reading, be sure to check out this month's meeting of the Book Review Club at Barrie Summy's.


  1. Love Margot Livesey so will look for this one for sure.
    I thought the ending of Defending Jacob worked. She had been worried about him since the beginning, believing that he was the culprit. Knowing he would either spend his life in jail like his grandfather or continue his ways, she did what she did. Sad though.

  2. Jane Eyre was a favorite of mine (time for a re-read!), so this definitely catches my interest. Thanks for letting me know about it.

  3. How funny, as I read your review I thought the story sounded familiar, yes it is Jane. The crazy wife in the attic felt a bit far fetched to me in the original Jane. Great review!

  4. Jane Eyre is definitely in my top 10.
    Thanks for the review :)

  5. Sounds like a pretty good one. Sometimes those "remakes in modern times" can be entertaining. Nice review!

  6. You write such a great review! I'm so glad you were able to join in this month. Like Sarah, I was reading your post, thinking how familiar the story sounded. ;)

  7. I'll have to look out for that book. Its the kind of story line that I like.
    Love your irises.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  8. Your write up of books is so awesome! I wish you'd write a book! I never read Jane Eyre and now totally feel like I'm missing out.

  9. Hi Rose, Jane Eyre was a favourite book of mine when I was a teenager. So much so, that I made a point of visiting her family home when I was in my early 20's and in the area.
    This new version sounds like a fun read. Have you read Death comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, by any chance? I noticed it is now out in paperback and was thinking of buying a copy. I was wondering if you have read and liked it.

  10. Pattinase, Thanks for your answer on Defending Jacob. I agree that it fit her character, but I was hoping for more of a resolution at the end. I guess I like my mysteries neatly tied up:)

    Ellen, I haven't re-read Jane Eyre in a long time, but it was fun reading this modern version.

    Sarah, Mad Bertha made quite an impression on me as a teenager! I suppose if I read it for the first time today, I'd think it was overdone, too:)

    Suburbia, I think "To Kill a Mockingbird" has replaced Jane as the #1 on my list. But it certainly was my favorite when I was young.

    Beth, The remakes don't always work, but this one was very well-written.

    Barrie, Thanks for hosting this! I don't always have time to participate, but I've decided to chime in whenever I find a good book I think others would enjoy, too.

    Maggie, I do recommend Gemma--I enjoyed the description of Scotland especially.

    Tina, What a sweet thing to say! Thank you; writing a book has always been one of my fantasies, but I can't seem to get past page one:)

    Jennifer, I've always wanted to see the Brontes' home! How thrilling that must have been. I am reading "Death at Pemberley" right now, but I've been too busy to read much. It may be summer before I have time to really get into it.

  11. Hi Rose, I love Jane Eyre but confess I'm not overly keen on 're-tellings', I always feel it's a little lazy to use someone else's plot although I must say this one does sound like a very good read. I do thoroughly enjoy your book reviews and at this moment have 'The Help' (as recommended by you) on my dangerously toppling 'still to be read' tower of books by the bed, :-)

    Now how did I manage to miss your 'blues' post? :-( I really loved the Amsonia! What a lovely shade of blue and what a battle you had to move it but at least now you have two for the price of one.

    By the way, I learnt a new word from you today (I saw it in your comment on Cheryl's blog) ...'ornery'! I asked my husband, who is an editor and proof reader, and he immediately said 'yes, it's an American word'. So now I have a new word to perplex my friends with ;-)

  12. Songbird, I probably didn't do this book justice--there are definite parallels between the two books, but "Gemma Hardy" is very well-written and enjoyable, even if one wasn't familiar with Jane Eyre. I love that I introduced you to a new word:) I didn't realize this was an American word! I've also learned a few new words from my UK friends.

  13. Hello Rose. I thought the same as Tina...that you should be writing a book. I've been reading Elizabeth Berg books lately, eleven in a row.

    Doesn't everyone use the word ornery? ha-ha It's been part of my vocabulary forever.

    Thanks for stopping by my simple blog and telling me about the birthday cake sliding down the windshield.

  14. Love the book club. I always have my eye on something new to add to my reading list. Jane Eyre has long been a favourite and this book sounds very promising.

  15. Hi Rose,
    Isn't that strange. I've just finished reading this book. Took it out of the library and I also found it quite similar to Jane Eyre and skimmed over some of the cruety in the earlier chapters.

    Like you, I found the reason she dumped Mr. Sinclair too mild. And I did think there was something like a mad wife locked in the cellar (well, not really that bad, but close).

    Anyway, a good read.


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