Wednesday, February 8, 2012

REVIEW: The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey. Published 2012 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

So, I wasn't sure I was going to review The Flight of Gemma Hardy. I think it's really hard to rewrite a classic- Gemma is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë's immortal Jane Eyre- and I don't think the book is bad. I guess I just don't get it though.

When you start to rewrite a classic set in another time and place (Livesey sets Gemma in 1960s Scotland as opposed to early nineteenth century England), there are some things to consider. You have to consider how closely you want to hem to the plot points of the original. There are advantages and pitfalls to how you carry off the plot in relation to the original. Hem to closely, and it's boring- the reader already knows what's going to happen, so why keep reading? Stray too much, and you risk disappointing the fans. The author has to carry off what's important in a way that feels fresh but not be a slave to what's not. Most importantly, for the new book to be a success, the author has to create a truly original, engaging heroine (or hero), and the new heroine has to do the things she does not because that's what happened in the original but because that's what she'd do. The best example of the classic-rewrite that I've read, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice) carries it off without a hitch. While I thought it's mostly pretty solid,  Gemma Harding has some shortcomings for me.

The book is set mostly in the Orkney Islands; the dominant feeling is cold and gloom. Gemma Hardy is an orphan living with her dead mother's family, who despise her. They send her away to a Dickensian nightmare of a boarding school and from there she winds up as a governess at a Scottish estate, where she falls in love with the lord of the manor. Can such a love ever be? There are secrets and lies, and Gemma has some self-discovery to do, too. So if you know Jane you know already you can tick off the plot points pretty easily. Gemma herself is reasonably sympathetic and her journey is interesting to see unfold.

I couldn't forget about Jane thought- Gemma isn't different enough or a strong enough character for that- and the book seems more interested in the plot than in the character development.  I found the central romance to be tepid and under-drawn; I wish I'd gotten to know Mr. Sinclair better. I didn't really understand his "secret" and wished for a little more drama on that point.  I found Gemma's "growth" to be kind of shallow; in the end it seemed like she didn't really learn anything or grow except to discover that she could be as unethical as the man she loves. So it wasn't perfect for me and I wished for a little more heat with regards to the romance, but I have no doubt that Gemma will do very well with womens' fiction readers and most literary readers. If you're a Jane Eyre fan it's definitely worth checking out anyway.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from HarperCollins.