Monday, June 2, 2014

The Flight of Gemma Hardy

The Flight of Gemma Hardy
by Margot Livesey

(Abbreviated) Publisher's Blurb:
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.

My Reaction:
(SPOILERS for Jane Eyre)
(I abbreviated the blurb, because I think it gives away too many details of the story.)

Jane Eyre has been one of my favorite books since the time I first read it (as a teenager), and from the very first sentence of this novel ("We did not go for a walk on the first day of the year."), I recognized a retelling.  (Yes, yet again I started a book without reading the blurb... Or if I ever read it, it must've been so long ago that I'd forgotten the Brontë connection.  I chose the book based on its cover, title, and availability.) 

When you have particularly strong feelings about a book, you are likely to have similarly strong reactions to other books that are "inspired by" or "based on" it.  Sometimes you love the new book for the sake of that connection.  More often, however, I think you expect more of it, and it rarely lives up to the comparison.  That's certainly the case in this instance.  The "borrowing" of themes and plot twists was so blatant that it was impossible to forget or even ignore.  That invites constant comparison, and the newer book simply couldn't live up to the original.

Several times I found myself wishing I were reading Jane Eyre instead.  I like Jane more than Gemma.  Jane seems more intelligent and mature and admirable than Gemma.  Jane and Mr. Rochester have better chemistry (dialogue) than Gemma and Mr. Sinclair (who is barely even a character-- completely lacking Mr. Rochester's powerful personality).  Jane is almost a real person to me; Gemma remains a limited and only moderately sympathetic character.  Jane Eyre is a feast, while Gemma Hardy is airplane food.

Once I'd started the book, I wanted to see where it went-- how the author would "re-interpret" the plot points of Jane Eyre for a more modern setting-- and I made it through the book alright, but I never enjoyed it as much as I hoped, and I mostly just wanted it to end.  I might have liked it more if I hadn't been comparing it to something so infinitely superior, but of course that's impossible to know. 

Nitpicks (with SPOILERS for this book and Jane Eyre):
-- "Louise now had her own horse.  She had tried to convert me to her equine cult by lending me Black Beauty and National Velvet.  So long as I was reading I understood her enthusiasm, but as soon as I was in the presence of an actual horse, all teeth and hooves and dusty hair, I was once again baffled."  Aside from My Little Pony and various and sundry rainbow-haired cartoonish unicorns (some with wings!), I guess I also skipped right over that particular (supposed) female obsession.  I don't come from "horse people", so I guess that's part of it.  (We're dog people, instead, I suppose you could say.) 

-- The multiple references to Anne of Green Gables were nice.  Sadly, I'm not sure that Gemma and I would be kindred spirits...

--  I suppose it's part of the effort at modernization, but I can't say I like the seamy, nasty little touches that pop up in the story, now and again.  Things like Gemma stumbling upon the disgusting tableau of Drummond and some random boy having sex in the field of raspberry canes.  Or Mrs. Milne's obscene rant.  Or the man on the bus who steals from Gemma and attempts to molest her.  Gross.

--  Ross is a despicable character.  I suppose we're meant to feel at least a little sorry for her, but she doesn't make it easy.  However little I like her, though, the repeated description of her chipped tooth and "muddy brown eyes" feels unnecessarily rude and juvenile.  She's unlikeable enough without the catty remarks on her looks!  (Also, I can't help but wonder if other people think that my eyes are "muddy brown", too... Poor, awful Ross...)

--  The ghostly young man at Claypoole (the school Gemma attends) is an odd inclusion in the book.  Then there's that creepy snow-thing that visits her when she's locked in the sewing closet... And of course all the other supernatural things that come later in the book.  The touches of the supernatural in Jane Eyre are more elegantly executed.

--  New words for me:  gymkhanas.  dreich.  harled.

--  One of the things I most admire about Jane Eyre is her strength of character.  She is clearly influenced and guided by her deeply-held religious beliefs.  Gemma Hardy brings up the issue of God and Scripture a few times, but never with conviction-- always with uncertainty.  Gemma leaves Scripture out of her schedule for teaching Nell, and when one person asks if another believes in God, the answer is repeatedly along the lines of "I don't know"-- or even bleaker: "'No... I think some things just are, like puffins and volcanoes, and then humans invent other things.'"  Another reflection of the changing times?  (This book is set in the late 1950s to mid 1960s.)  It's not a reflection I like...  I do appreciate that at least there are some sympathetic religious characters to balance the terrible preacher (vicar?) at Claypoole.

--  Gemma seems naive for a nineteen year old in the swinging 1960s.  Sure, she's grown up in a restrictive environment, but still!  In some ways-- many-- even Jane Eyre seems worldlier, by comparison.

--  Gemma also (at times) seems too good to be true.  Like when she calls a bee "poor thing" after it stings her (because a bee dies after it uses its sting).  Excuse me while I roll my eyes.  It's a bee.  Good grief.  Does she also shed a tear for the poor yeast when she bakes bread? ;o)

--  Now, I don't like Coco, but I had to sympathize with her when she showed no interest in Gemma's rather know-it-all, "let me teach you" observations about male birds being the flashier of the species, as opposed to human beings, where the women are generally thought the more visually pleasing gender.  I mean, sure, that's interesting and all, but I think most people have heard it by the time they've reached adulthood.  Coco remarks that it would be "super" if they found a chalice, "whatever that is", around some ruins-- and Gemma is "about to explain that a chalice was a metal drinking cup, and also that any finds belonged to the government..."  That doesn't make Gemma sound like a fun companion, to tell the truth.

--  At some point-- the mention of the last great auk, I think-- I had had it with all the mentions of birds.  Grah!  We get it!  She's obsessed with birds!  There's a reference to birds (ok, flight) in the very title of the book.  WE KNOW.  Now can you please let up a little?

--  The first kiss after the admission of love was a bit too... hands-on for my taste.  Why not take it a little bit slower?  It made their whole relationship feel trashy.

--  "Please swear the one thing I want.  That you won't allow anything, any secret, to change your feelings for me."  ...Yeah, no red flags there!  Besides, I don't think it's possible to honestly make that promise.  You can swear that you will stay with someone through whatever comes, even if your feelings change.  You can swear that you'll try to keep your feelings the same, always, but feelings change.  It happens, even in loving, committed relationships.  We change over time, and our feelings change with us.  What matters is how you handle those changes.

-- King Solomon's Mines, by Rider Haggard.  Possibly interesting to read at some point.

-- Gemma's reason for running away from "New Thornfield" is weak.  I mean really weak.  Of course, I never really understood why Gemma and Mr. Sinclair were getting married in the first place.  They fall in love so fast that if you blink, you've missed it.  Jane and Mr. Rochester's strange courtship, on the other hand, is deliciously drawn out and dizzying.  ...Actually, that's one of my biggest problems with this re-telling.  Jane Eyre is a story about a woman's struggle to find her place in the world, but a crucial part of the book is her love story.  To call Gemma Hardy a love story would be a painful stretch, imho. 

--  "'...people say in pure maths you reach a point where you can't understand what the numbers are doing.  Classics seem safer.'  'Why should you suddenly not understand numbers?  That sounds like something male teachers say to girls.'"  *eyeroll*

--  Of course the two sisters from the original have turned into a lesbian couple in the modernization.  Obviously.  Adds so much to the story to do it that way.

--  When Gemma makes a passing reference to Nell and Coco on the night she drinks too much at the congratulatory supper with Hannah and Pauline, I had to really think to remember who Coco was.  It felt like such a long time since her little bit of the book!

--  Gemma's theft was shocking.  It felt completely out of character-- something that Jane Eyre would never have done.  Her sudden desperate need to find her family in Iceland seemed manufactured.  Despite her objections (basically, "they might have refused!"), she could have asked someone for a loan-- or to help her find her family while still living in Scotland.  That theft was unforgivable, and after that, I didn't particularly care what happened to her. 

--  Considering how much of a whirlwind romance Gemma and Mr. Sinclair's relationship was-- and how immature Gemma seems, in some respects-- I think it's probably for the best that the novel ends with her telling Mr. Sinclair that she wants to spend a little time as a single adult before she agrees to marry him. 

--  One thing that was never resolved-- the precious personal belongings that Gemma left with her old teacher.  Maybe once she's matured a bit, she'll have the courage to go back to his sister and explain the situation.  Surely the sister wouldn't be (as) angry, once she knew the facts.  (And really, it was at least as much Mr. Donaldson's fault as it was Gemma's.  After all, he-- an adult who might have foreseen some potential for scandal, since he'd had problems in the past-- gave her those addressed and stamped envelopes.  Of course, both of them were completely innocent of any wrong-doing and the ultimate blame goes to Gemma's awful aunt.) 

--  I imagine that few readers really like St. John Rivers, so it's no surprise that his copy in this book, Archie, is similarly difficult to like.  However, while St. John is cold and severe, at least we know that he is capable of love and warmth-- just not in response to Jane.  Archie, on the other hand, is... I don't know what he is.  In Jane Eyre, we understand why St. John wants to marry Jane.  He needs an intelligent, hard-working helpmeet for his proposed work as a missionary, and because of the traditions of the time, he's convinced that they must be married for this to work.  Why Archie would want to marry Gemma, on the other hand, is harder to comprehend.  Clearly he doesn't feel passionate love for her... Maybe he's just hoping for a friendly companion or feels that he's "supposed" to get married, and since they share some interests, she's as good an option as he's likely to find.  In any case, while I don't really like Archie that much, I feel a bit sorry for him.  I don't remember feeling sorry for St. John.  He wouldn't appreciate pity. 

-- That's it.  I've nothing more to say, except that I'm glad to have this one done.  (I feel I've been saying that about a lot of books, lately.  I need to be choosier, apparently.)