The reviews for this book are all over the place. Some think it’s a pale, boring retelling of Jane Eyre while other readers loved it. The comparison isn’t only about Gemma and Jane Eyre, our author was also without a mother at age nine and grew up lonely in Scotland, as Gemma did, reading Jane Eyre from her own father’s library. Obviously her experiences were quite different.
The old adage imitation is the sincerest form of flattery holds true for me, at least with this book. Wuthering Heights is retold in a contemporary setting in Solsbury Hill by Susan Wyler (very popular modernized version with all the heartache you’d expect) and what about Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a modern version of King Lear? Anyway, I very much enjoyed this story. I thought Gemma was an intelligent headstrong girl. Obviously well-educated thanks to her uncle and without formal schooling, she showed remarkable maturity and resilience.
Gemma’s life is filled with tragedy. We are introduced to Gemma when she is 10 years old, living in her aunt’s home in Scotland. Although she previously lived in Iceland she was born in Scotland, her mother being Scottish and her father an Icelander. When she is young her mother dies after falling and hitting her head on a rock. A few years later her fisherman father drowns. She is taken in by her Uncle Charles and becomes part of the Hardy household in Scotland. She was only 3 years of age when she moved in with the Hardy family. Then Uncle Charles died and Gemma’s place in the household changed. This is the start of the book, how she went from family member to the status of hired help. She was relegated to the kitchen, removed from the family dinner table, wore old, old clothes and was treated shabbily.
When the chance came to send her away to a school her aunt jumped on it. For a smart young lady you would think this would be the ideal escape for Gemma but alas, that was jumping from the pan into the fire. The “working girls” who did not pay tuition were basically slaves. Cleaning, cooking, gardening and their studies came last. It was a horrible situation.
It just seemed to be one thing after another for Gemma but she never lost her determination. Rather than rehash this entire book I’ll say that I enjoyed reading how she overcame many obstacles and fretted for her when something overwhelming cropped up. Oh, another thing I liked about Gemma was her quest for knowledge and her love of birds. There was a large book in her beloved uncle’s study called Birds of the World. She loved looking at the photos and learning where they lived in the world. Her only friend at school noted this love of birds and gifted Gemma with a book about Scottish birds. There are references as she points out curlews, lapwings, grebes, blackbird, curlew, jackdaw and puffins when she is working as an au pair and later as a nanny.
There were a couple of things I didn’t like in the book and rather than have spoilers here, I put those thoughts on Goodreads as there is a format for hiding them.
The setting is mostly in Glasgow, a rural setting of Aberfeldy and the Orkney Islands. As I note foodie items in most books I read I can say there are many mentions of food here yet it’s not a foodie book by any means.
This is an author I will most certainly seek out, Margot Livesey can paint a vivid picture.
Sharing with Joy’s Book Blog for her British Isles Friday event.