three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
user_rating: 
0

737019.pngThe acclaimed author of six previous novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture (2001) and The House on Fortune Street (4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2008), Scottish-born Margot Livesey is currently writer-in-residence at Boston’s Emerson College. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and Vogue.

The Story: In this modern-day retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre, it is 1958, and 10-year-old orphan Gemma Hardy is mourning the loss of her beloved Uncle Charles, who after the death of her parents seven years earlier, fetched her from her native Iceland to raise as his own in Scotland. Gemma’s cruel, conceited Aunt Louise soon sends her to Claypoole, a boarding school where Gemma must endure backbreaking labor in exchange for her education. At 18, Gemma takes a job as a nanny in remote, windswept Orkney, where she meets the brooding, mysterious master of Blackbird Hall, Hugh Sinclair, who is hiding a shocking secret.
Harper. 464 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780062064226

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Livesey works some sort of magic in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which is too entertaining to be superfluous, too wise in its understanding of human nature to be a mere retread. … In The Flight of Gemma Hardy, she knows she’s treading on hallowed ground, and she uses the skills that have served her well in her other works—a sharp sense of time, place and atmosphere; straightforward and yet poetic language; deft characterization—to reshape and modernize Jane’s tale." Connie Ogle

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Gemma Hardy is one of those page turners in which you occasionally have to wrest yourself away from the plot to admire the language. … Part of the great pleasure in reading this novel is the tension between the ways the two stories match and diverge." Kristin Ohlson

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Jane Eyre is, simplistically, a coming-of-age story and a social criticism set in a Gothic landscape. Livesey owns the soul of the story. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a work that transcends its time. Society has changed; the core of behavior and ethics have not." Robin Vidimos

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"As evidenced by novels like Eva Moves the Furniture, which featured a pair of ghostly female characters, Livesey is drawn to literary gambles, and there’s no question that modeling her new book on a classic is a risky move. … It’s a delight to follow the careful dovetailing of the two novels—starting on the rainy day when both stories begin, with each heroine in a window seat, finding solace in the pages of an encyclopedia of birds." Sarah Towers

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Yes, it works, so much so that this longtime Jane Eyre fan—though initially skeptical—couldn’t put it down. … With The Flight of Gemma Hardy, you sense that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller—and that, quite possibly, Brontë herself might have approved." Moira Macdonald

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The larger problem, though, is that Gemma is a plainer plain Jane. She rails and she rages, but she never attains the volcanic fury of her predecessor, which, after all, is what makes Jane so hypnotic." Ron Charles

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"It would be difficult for any writer to find as lively an impediment to love as Rochester’s lunatic wife, but a muddy series of events … does not explain Gemma’s desperate flight. … I’m not sure where Livesey’s fascination with Jane Eyre will lead her next, but under the weight of her devotion and Jane’s bulky plot, Gemma Hardy never took flight." Audrey Ferber

Critical Summary

Modeling a new novel on a beloved classic is a potentially hazardous undertaking, but Livesey generally succeeds despite a few missteps. Her elegant prose, haunting descriptions, skillful characterizations, and ability to bring a bygone era to life atone for Blackbird Hall’s disappointingly bland mystery and the unconvincing relationship between Hugh and Gemma, which "never seem[s] more than a notch on Livesey’s Brontë checklist" (San Francisco Chronicle). Most of the fun in reading The Flight of Gemma Hardy, however, comes from connecting the dots between the original and the adaptation. While Jane Eyre devotees may be "left wishing … for more mad women in the attic" (Minneapolis Star Tribune), Livesey’s graceful, atmospheric page turner should have no trouble holding its own on contemporary shelves.

Supplemental Reading

737032.pngJane Eyre | Charlotte Brontë (1847): Although, according to the Miami Herald, readers need not be familiar with this venerated classic to enjoy The Flight of Gemma Hardy, those who have never traveled with poor but plucky Jane Eyre as she makes her way in the world are in for a treat.