Monday, September 16, 2013

Gemma, Jane, and a little Dramatic Irony

I should be suspicious of retellings, but I'm not.  I loved Jane Eyre, and I love Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea.  I thought Smiley's One Thousand Acres was a marvelous treatment of King Lear, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a beautfiul story on its own, was such a magical Hamlet story.

When I finally began Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I picked it in part because I knew it was also a Jane Eyre story, set this time in Scotland in the late 1960s.  Gemma was born to a Scottish mother and Finnish father, but was brought back to Scotland by her uncle when her parents died.  The beloved uncle's death (of course) leaves her at the mercy of a merciless aunt and hateful cousins.  She ends up as a "working girl"--one of the youngest--at a boarding school, where she eventually makes a friend--who dies (of course). 

What makes this novel worth reading is not so much the familiar threads borrowed from Bronte, but the ways Livesey takes the story her own way.  There are enough similarities in the plot that I'm wanting to scream, "No, Gemma!  Watch your bags!"  But some of the more Gothic details have been eliminated.  Through naivete and bad luck, Gemma finds herself in a variety of situations--as an au pair to an orphaned daughter of a single mother in the Orkneys (with the dark and mysterious uncle--of course); sleeping in an unlocked church, rescued and nursed back to health by a potter and her partner and brother, and as a sitter and tutor to another motherless boy. 

Part of her quest takes her to Finnland, the home she hardly remembers, searching for any remaining kin.  Perhaps one of the only flaws in the plot is a little deus ex machina that brings the final threads together.  Livesey has the grace, though, to stop short of having Gemma deliver a final pronouncement to her "dear reader."

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