I've enjoyed Margot Livesey's commentary in some of the Thalia Book Club discussions I've listened to, but I had never read any of her work. So I decided to give The Flight of Gemma Hardy a try, not realizing that it was a reimagining of Jane Eyre, set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s and 1960s.
Gemma, like Jane, has been through difficult times. Her parents died and she had to leave Iceland as a young child to live with her uncle in Scotland. Then her uncle dies and her hideous aunt sends her away to a boarding school, where she is a "working girl"--she attends class, but she also has to do various housekeeping chores. She is bullied and her one friend dies. Then, just before she takes the exams she must complete to attend university, the school closes and she must find a job.
She gets a job as a nanny in a remote location in the Orkney Islands. Here, the Jane Eyre comparisons become very obvious, as she and the lord of the manor (her charge's uncle, who is 40 to her 18) fall in love. Then she learns something upsetting about her fiance and she runs away. After some terrible experiences, she lands another job among people who are very kind to her. But, evidently, she can't deal with good times, as she ends up hurting her new friends and takes off to see if she has any relatives still alive in Iceland. Happier times ensue.
I found this book unbelievable and unrewarding. First, the love story makes no sense. Second, Gemma is supposed to be a bright girl but continually makes dumb decisions--including many decisions that hurt other people despite her alleged sensitivity. In fact, the more I think about her, the more irritating she becomes. Furthermore, I couldn't see that the book made any larger point, though I suspect it was supposed to be something about running away from emotions of all kinds. The author has said that reading Jane Eyre was transformative for her, so perhaps those who love Bronte's book will find The Flight of Gemma Hardy more meaningful than I did (to be honest, I barely remember Jane Eyre). Although Livesey's writing is sometimes quite lovely, it's not enough to convince me to recommend this book.
No one within 50 miles knew my name, or my whereabouts. I too could disappear, blown away like the dry leaves I saw skimming down the tracks.