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A Book A Week: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey


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It takes a lot of guts to adapt a classic novel into a contemporary one. An author opens herself up to all sorts of judgments about whether or not the new work lives up to the original.

I have mentioned this dilemma before, when I wrote here about The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine: "I can't decide if updating a classic like Sense and Sensibility is brave (oh, the challenge of writing as well as Ms. Austen!) or lazy (don't have to waste time coming up with a plot!). Maybe it's both."

But I think Margot Livesey does a better job with The Flight of Gemma Hardy, her retelling of Jane Eyre, than Schine does with Sense and Sensibility. Schine tries a bit too hard to be completely faithful to the original, creating analogs for even the most minor of Austen's characters. Livesey knows when to quit, and while many characters and incidents are parallel, Livesey's differ enough in a few important ways so that her work feels fresh. You don't spend all your time trying to play match-up.

The plot does parallel that of Jane Eyre, so we've got a story of a young orphan girl who is ill-treated by her guardians, sent off to a cruel boarding school, and ends up as an au pair to a family in the Orkney Islands. Livesey makes a smart decision to set this novel in the 1960s, which updates it enough to make it different, but frees her from the need to give Gemma a cell phone and an ATM card, both of which would make her flight from Hugh Sinclair (Mr. Rochester) a lot less plausible. The remote estate on Orkney feels just as isolated and mysterious as Thornfield Hall, and Mr. Sinclair is sexy and conflicted, just as he ought to be.

This is a good read, both for fans of Jane Eyre and for anyone who likes a complicated emotional story.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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