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Fly, Fly Away

A review of the brilliant The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, which is more of an exploration than a retelling of Jane Eyre.

Fly, Fly Away

BOOK REPORT for The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

Cover Story: Headless Girl Done Right
BFF Charm: Yes, Yes, A Thousand Times Yes
Swoonworthy Scale: 4
Talky Talk: Wonderfully Grownup
Bonus Factors: Jane Eyre, Iceland, the Orkneys, Coming of Age
Relationship Status: True Love

Cover Story: Headless Girl Done Right

LOOK AT THIS THING OF BEAUTY. Yes, there's a headless girl, but since the story revolves around a search for identity, it's symbolic! The typography, the balance, the colors -- all GORGEOUS. Of course, it's a grownup book. A YA version of this would have the girl half-drowning as well as headless, in a prom dress, and with hot pink swirly type. Will they ever learn?

The Deal:

A year after orphaned Gemma Hardy lost the uncle who took her in, she's packed off to a gloomy boarding school to work for her tuition and board. There, she mainly learns self reliance and patience along with her lessons, and when the school closes, she takes a position as an au pair at the remote Orkney Island manor Blackbird Hall. The lord of the hall is frequently absent, grumpy and brooding. Sound familiar? This remimagining of Jane Eyre is set in the 1950s and early 1960s, and while the plot follows the original in all the major points, the new setting allows the author to explore the characters' backgrounds and motivations -- especially Gemma/Jane's -- more thoroughly, as well as delve more deeply into some of the original's feminist topics than was possible for Brontë. Oops, now I've gone and spoiled some of my Talky Talk section.

BFF Charm:Yes, Yes, A Thousand Times Yes!

When would I EVER deny Jane Eyre a BFF charm? Ok, maybe in a weird romance retelling involving leather pants, or bondage sex, or something, but CERTAINLY NOT HERE. Gemma is DEEEELIGHTFUL. She's bright and straightforward, headstrong in her pursuit of her goals. She is lonely, and craves recognition -- from herself as well as others -- and she desperately needs someone to support her without pressure AND tell her she's too hard on herself. Gemma! You're wonderful! Don't ever change.

Swoonworthy Scale: 4

I KNOW, WHAT? A version of this story without a volcanic swoon scale? Don't get me wrong -- the romance between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair has its moments of heartstopping tension and swoony stolen kisses, but the star of the story is Gemma's romance with herself (not like that, you perv), and it's her story I really fell in love with, and her inner story that made me sigh with satisfaction and happiness at the end.

Talky Talk: Wonderfully Grownup

Look, I love YA as much as the next person, probably more, but sometimes disappearing into a real, live grownup book fills me with such happiness and soothes my soul like Calgon never can. Yeah, it took me weeks to read this one, and there were no crooked smiles or floppy hair in sight, but that's sometimes SO REFRESHING. Besides, Gemma's story only spans ages 9-19, and is the very definition of a bildungsroman (hey, Mr. Cranky Critic Guy, not all of us book bloggers are deficient in literary criticism education, thanks. Also, we're not afraid to be honest when a book sucks [not this one!]), so it still has its place here on FYA.

This is the first of Livesey's books I've read, but I've started tracking down all her backlist. Despite being a retelling of a very famous original story, Livesey makes this story her own. The details are as stark and bleak as the setting, and there are small nods to Charlotte Brontë hidden like gems among the pages, but my very favorite aspect of the novel is when Livesey lets her characters take flight and explore their inner lives. We get much more of Gemma's uncle in this version, as well as Vicky Sinclair (Mrs. Fairfax) and Gemma's rescuers following her flight from Blackbird Hall, and these are what bring richness to the story. Also, at the risk of getting too high school lit class-y, I loved the way she worked in birds throughout the story, from the multi-meaning title to Gemma's favorite book (and its provenance).

Bonus Factor: Jane Eyre

I had a hard time stopping at four bonus factors, but Jane Eyre obviously had to make the list. It's been one of my favorite books for 20 years, and this retelling brings new depth to Brontë's work.

Bonus Factor: Iceland

Gemma was born in Iceland, and part of her journey takes her to the island, which is rendered in bewitching detail. Next vacay spot!

Bonus Factor: The Orkneys

The bleakness of the Orkney Islands is a fitting substitute for the moors, and as I sit here in 80 DEGREE WEATHER IN DECEMBER, I can't contain my longing for the cold, raging seas and windswept landscapes.

Bonus Factor: Coming of Age

I couldn't decide whether to call this one "Coming of Age" or "Feminism." I picked up Jane Eyre a couple of years ago, for the first time in about ten years, and was stunned by the feminism the book touched on -- sexuality, rejection of religion, a woman having (and being loved for) a mind of her own. Livesey picks these themes up and deepens them in a way only possible in a modern work with a modern setting, a setting on the cusp of a wave of feminist thought and criticism. Gemma is so sheltered and suffocated, but no one manages to snuff out her independent spirit, and as she grows and learns about the world, she's able to explore her ideals as she discovers her identity -- both literal and spiritual. And the ending! I won't spoil, but it was PERFECT. I never thought I'd … but anyway. No spoiling.

Casting Call:

Romola Garai as Gemma

Romola Garai could be a credible Gemma (although, uh, not with this look).

Toby Stephens as Rochester

Toby Stephens is by far my favorite screen Rochester, so I hope he doesn't mind reprising the role as Mr. Sinclair.

Relationship Status: True Love

I pounced on this book back in the summer, but I saved it for the bleak midwinter. Sadly, it's neither bleak nor wintry here, so it was nice to escape into the cold and wind and rain for a while without actually getting cold or windburned or wet. I wasn't sure this book could live up to its pedigree, but damn. It takes its place on my FAVORITES FOREVER shelf, right next to its older cousin, but in a spot of its very own. I'd lend you my copy, but I can't bear to part with it -- you'll just have to get your own. It really is as close to perfect as I've read in a very long time.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Harper Collins.  I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). The Flight of Gemma Hardy is available now.

Meghan Miller's photo About the Author: Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas and writer for Forever Young Adult. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.