The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

When her widower father drowns at sea, Gemma Hardy is taken from her native Iceland to Scotland to live with her kind uncle and his family. But the death of her doting guardian leaves Gemma under the care of her resentful aunt, and it soon becomes clear that she is nothing more than an unwelcome guest at Yew House. When she receives a scholarship to a private school, ten-year-old Gemma believes she’s found the perfect solution and eagerly sets out again to a new home. However, at Claypoole she finds herself treated as an unpaid servant.

To Gemma’s delight, the school goes bankrupt, and she takes a job as an au pair on the Orkney Islands. The remote Blackbird Hall belongs to Mr. Sinclair, a London businessman; his eight-year-old niece is Gemma’s charge. Even before their first meeting, Gemma is, like everyone on the island, intrigued by Mr. Sinclair. Rich (by Gemma’s standards), single, flying in from London when he pleases, Hugh Sinclair fills the house with life. An unlikely couple, the two are drawn to each other, but Gemma’s biggest trial is about to begin: a journey of passion and betrayal, redemption and discovery, that will lead her to a life of which she’s never dreamed.

Set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s and ’60s, The Flight of Gemma Hardy—a captivating homage to Charlotte BrontË’s Jane Eyre—is a sweeping saga that resurrects the timeless themes of the original but is destined to become a classic all its own.

I have a confession to make. I have never read Jane Eyre. I have a rather complicated relationship with classics. I dearly love some of them but others I’ve never been able to like and I’m afraid the Bronte sister’s works fall into that category. I started Jane Eyre ages ago and made it through the first chapter before giving up, realizing that I was going to have a difficult time getting through a book with such unlikable characters. I’ve seen several movie versions and enjoyed the setting and acting, but the story itself has never been my cup of tea (though I will say that the latest Jane Eyre movie was absolutely gorgeous to watch). So why then did I pick up this modernized version of the story?

Er, I don’t know really. I guess I was just looking to branch out from the YA section at my library. This one caught my eye and I  remembered a fairly favorable review so I decided to see what changed when you put Jane into a different time period. Turns out, not much.

Instead of Jane we have Gemma, a lonely orphan who is taken from her home in Iceland to go live with her Uncle and his family after both her parents die. Gemma grows to love her Uncle but unfortunately he dies as well. This leaves Gemma in the care of her Aunt, a woman who wants nothing to do with her and treats her quite terribly. Despite the warnings of one of her schoolteachers, Gemma jumps at the chance to leave her Aunt’s house when she receives a scholarship to a girl’s school. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that this is far from the school of her dreams when she becomes one of the “working girls”. Gemma is bright and studious, but she spends most of her time scrubbing floors and peeling potatoes. With no other options she makes the best of it for years, though her stubborn streak and habit of telling the truth often get her into trouble. Once free of the school Gemma seeks a job as an au pair, which leads her to the remote Orkney Islands and Hugh Sinclair (Mr. Rochester).

The story follows along a very similar path to the original, yet the updated voice made it much easier for me to read. I was quickly drawn along with Gemma’s narration and found myself flying through the pages. I’m not quite sure why these changes made me like the story so much better since all the cruelty is still there. Give me a true villain over the small and petty meanness of normal people any day… at least in books. EVERYONE seems to hate Gemma. She’s a child who has a hard time not voicing her own opinions and the adults around her use this as an excuse to punish her at every turn. At times it seems like her life is a series of out of the frying pan into the fire incidents. Each time things can’t possibly to get any worse, they do.

When she turns eighteen and gets a job on the Orkney Islands things finally seem to be looking up for Gemma. It’s remote and lonely at times, but she works slowly at forming a bond with her young charge and manages to make some friends. And then there’s the handsome Mr Sinclair who Gemma can’t help but fall for.

Dude, I’ve never liked Mr Rochester and I didn’t like Mr. Sinclair any better. Brooding and mysterious only gets you so far in my book. I don’t understand his appeal in the slightest. I’m willing to make some allowances because they did have a certain chemistry, unfortunately in this version of events the circumstances keeping them apart are FAR less compelling than the reasons Jane left Mr. Rochester. I don’t want to give anything away, but I was left scratching my head. I felt that this change was the book’s biggest failing, though I wasn’t sorry to leave Mr. Sinclair behind for a time.

Despite my dislike of many of the characters and some of the plot, I found myself liking the book overall… strange and contradictory as that may sound. It was an easy read and surprisingly fun, considering how depressing some of the content is. It was nice to read something outside the YA genre for a change and this book has convinced me to pay more attention to the adult fiction shelf.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy on Goodreads & Amazon

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