Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

From the Back Cover:

Fate has not been kind to Gemma Hardy. Orphaned by the age of ten, neglected by a bitter and cruel aunt, sent to a boarding school where she is both servant and student, young Gemma seems destined for a life of hardship and loneliness. Yet her bright spirit burns strong. Fiercely intelligent, singularly determined, Gemma overcomes each challenge and setback, growing stronger and more certain of her path. Now an independent young woman with dreams of the future, she accepts a position as an au pair on the remote and beautiful Orkney Islands.

But Gemma's biggest trial is about to begin . . . a journey of passion and betrayal, secrets and lies, redemption and discovery that will lead her to a life she's never dreamed.

My Thoughts:

According to the author, this novel was strongly influenced by her passion for Jane Eyre and her desire "to recast Jane's journey to fit her own courageous heroine and the possibilities of her time and place." It's been a long time since I read Jane Eyre, but I don't remember it playing out like The Flight of Gemma Hardy does.

When Gemma's parents die, she's taken into her uncle's home as a young child. Her uncle dotes on her, educates her, and treats her as an equal member of the family. This causes tension with his wife and their three children. When Gemma's uncle dies in a tragic accident, Gemma's place in the household slips to little more than an unwanted shadow. Fed up with scorn, ridicule, and secondhand treatment, she latches on to her aunt's passing suggestion that she may qualify for a scholarship to boarding school. Schoolwork is where Gemma really excels, so she throws her all into entrance exams and is thrilled when she secures a "working girl" position at Claypoole. Leaving behind the painful memories of her aunt's house, Gemma prepares to launch her grand adventure. But boarding school turns out to be even worse than her aunt's house.

Isolated, lonely, and constantly walking a tightrope between bullying students and warden-like teachers, Gemma has so much work to do she barely has time for her studies, but she manages as best she can, and her refusal to give up, her determination that something better awaits her, and her clever use of subtle manipulation endear her to the reader. Gemma spends seven years at Claypoole, and when the school is forced to close before she can take her university entrance exams, Gemma has nowhere to go. Desperate for a position, she answers an ad for a nanny in the remote Orkney Islands, and the next chapter of her life begins.

And this is where she started to lose me. Though Gemma finally finds a freedom she'd never had before, and starts to blossom into her own person, I thought the story started to lose its intensity and meaning. Gemma's young charge, Nell, is a difficult child, but Gemma has a fairly easy time bringing her around. Nell's mysterious uncle Hugh is twice Gemma's age and a renowned bachelor, but Gemma seems to have an easy time getting him to fall in love with her. I was hoping for a grand, tortured love story, but it happens so quickly that it's without much substance, and Hugh's character is hardly developed. Gemma's about to have everything she ever wanted, when Hugh reveals his deepest secret, and it sends Gemma literally fleeing into the night. And I can't really understand why. It wasn't that dark of a secret. He definitely doesn't have a mad wife stashed in an attic somewhere, or anything nearly as scandalous. So that was disappointing, and for me, wasn't a big enough impetus for Gemma's "flight." As she goes about putting her life back together and seeking information about where she came from and who she is, I started to lose respect for Gemma. She makes some stupid decisions and seems to have no qualms about accepting aid from people and then leaving them high and dry. Flight becomes a pattern for her. Things start to come around full circle as the story nears the end, but by that time I was pretty much skimming just to see how she would end up reunited with Hugh, and that left me feeling flat, too.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy is beautifully written, and it does shed some light on the shifting world of women's and children's rights in 1960s Britain. I loved the first half of the book. Gemma, the child, was a great protagonist. It's when she became an adult that I lost faith in her. I have seen some rave reviews so don't let me scare you off, but it just doesn't have enough substance and emotional depth for me to sing its praises.

My Rating:  3 Stars out of 5

*Please note: This review references an advance review copy received through the Amazon Vine program, and the finished copy may differ. Though I received this book from the publisher, these are my honest and unbiased thoughts, and I was not compensated in any other way for reviewing this book.


  1. I always appreciate reading an honest review. I'm not sure if this one would be my cup of tea, either way, but it was interesting to read your thoughts on it.

  2. I am not sure it's for me, but if I saw it at the library i would pick it up and try, since I do love Jane Eyre

  3. I was lucky enough to pick up an ARC of this novel in the break room at B&N. I am really excited to read it because it's different from what I usually read. I'm trying to branch out more.

    I really appreciate your honest reviews on this blog.


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