Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: 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.

So says Amazon. Let me preface everything to come by saying that grownup literature really isn't my thing. Really, the only way to tempt me into that section is to dangle the names Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, or Charlotte Bronte in front of me. But I read the buzz concerning Gemma Hardy and was intrigued to see what Livesey could do with an Icelandic Jane Eyre, so I picked it up.

Gemma Hardy is a very pretty book. The sentences are well-constructed and have a pleasing rhythm. Livesey's voice is the kind that gets stuck in my head and leaves me thinking in that particular style for a few hours. However, it's merely pretty in the way that many "adult" books are pretty - its prettiness, not its story, is the lure.

The plot and its accompanying tensions are fairly thin. Gemma follows many of the key plot points of Jane line by line. Surly boy cousin who strikes her with a bird book? Check. Locked in a dark space as punishment? Check. Doctor who suggests she go to school? Check. Bad, bad school and hard work? Check. Pompous clergy and mean headmistress? Check. Even the rich girl who's supposed to be a threat to the Mr. Rochester (here called Mr. Sinclair) character's heart and the accompanying fortuneteller are present, though both are quickly ushered out again without offering any worry for the reader.

Okay, so maybe the synopsis underplayed the "homage" part of the book. What about the themes? Those are pretty good, right? Jane Eyre had some pretty great themes. Well, as persnickety as Livesey was about keeping plot points in Gemma, she was far more lackadaisical about themes. To me, Jane Eyre had three great hooks: love and  redemption, finding a home/family, and gothic superstition, all threaded together by the core underpinnings of Jane's character, her morality and faith.

Gemma, not so much. There's some superstition thrown in, thanks to a library ghost boy who doesn't really add anything, some attempts at telepathy that turn out to be pretty bogus, and Gemma's fascination with curses. Oh, and Thor. They talk about Thor sometimes, being Icelandic and all. The finding a home/family thing was really Gemma's main theme and was hammered pretty hard. 

But love and redemption? Nope. Avert your eyes if you really don't want to know: I still have no idea why, or even technically if, Gemma falls in love with Mr. Sinclair other than the fact that she's supposed to, per the Jane Eyre guidelines.

This is another example of story falling victim to pretty prose. Why bother describing a growing attraction if we can spend time talking about birds instead? Sex, however, is waved in the reader's face often, for no apparent reason (hinted girl-on-girl molestation! pedophilia allusions! random necking with a friend's brother who suddenly appears and then disappears! lesbian lovers! unwed mothers left and right! groping hobos!). And if you're hoping for some grand betrayal and redemption, a la Jane Eyre, forget it. The grand reveal at the church isn't so grand, and Gemma's self-righteousness felt odd and unwarranted.

Then again, Gemma herself felt odd. Livesey strips the Gemma of Jane's faithfulness, morality, and honesty. She strips her, in my opinion, of motivation. Even her desire to take her exams and go to university often flees her. She also strips Gemma of any real connection with the reader. I found myself struggling to feel what Gemma must be feeling, because she often seemed incapable of feeling any real emotion or at least of convincing me that she does. And that, to me, was the greatest tragedy of all.

I promised never to review a book that I couldn't say something positive about, so here it is: Iceland sounds like a wonderful place to visit, and Margot Livesey's sentences are a treat for the style-judging section of my brain.

From now on, I think I'll stick to YA lit.

Points For: Pretty style, strong voice, Iceland, length (at least it's shorter than Jane Eyre), more insight into the aunt character.

Points Subtracted For: Unnecessary sexuality, detached characters, disappointing climax, lack of a spitfire romantic rival, lack of a taut trajectory.

Good For Fans Of: Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, other authors who irritate me.

Notes For Parents: Many, many sexual situations and allusions, though nothing graphic.

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