I'm leaving out the bulk of the blurb there since if you've read Jane Eyre you know how this story goes. And while I love Bronte's book, I actually picked this one up for the setting since I'll be visiting the Orkney Islands in a few months.
Luckily, the setting is wonderfully rendered. Settings plural, I should say, since the novel travels all around Scotland before taking a trip to Iceland and back. Margot Livesey creates a lovely atmosphere in each of her various settings, including Gemma's stay on the Orkney Islands. Without getting bogged down in descriptions, I felt myself surrounded by the sea, listening to the calls of birds and seals, and feeling the cold wind pushing my back from the cliffs. Truly, well done.
The author unabashedly uses Jane Eyre as template for this novel. However, it was a bit like reading the same classic plot with all new characters. Mostly the wrong characters, unfortunately. A few of the lesser figures were given nice backstories and modern updates that seemed to work. Mirriam (aka Helen) has asthma and an actual personality in this version, and Nell is much more enjoyable than Adelle ever was, with a more heart-wrenching history. Mr. Sinclair, on the other hand, is nothing like the brooding, passionate, tormented hero that was Mr. Rochester. Instead he's a claustrophobic banker who says very little and spends virtually no time with the heroine before falling inexplicably in love with her, making it seem more like a rebound off of Coco (Miss Ingrid's tacky, two-dimensional update who self-destructs almost instantaneously).
Gemma herself is the worst fit of all in her role as Jane Eyre. Unlike her forbearer, Gemma does not grow from a difficult childhood into a strong woman whose integrity and belief in humanity define her. Instead, Gemma grows from a difficult childhood into a selfish, unlikeable liar with a sense of entitlement which baffles the mind. While Jane's flight from Thornfield hall is fraught with heartbreak and sacrifice, Gemma's flight is a story of selfish abandonment. Sinclair, it turns out, does not have a mad wife in the attic ala Rochester. What he does have is neither a romantic deal breaker nor any reason for Gemma to drop him like a hot potato. Drop him she does, however, and goes on to wreak havoc in the lives of several more innocent people, lying and stealing her way to "finding herself", before magnanimously forgiving Sinclair when he presents himself again in a very deux ex machina moment in the last chapter. That last chapter, by the way? Horrific. Slap-dash, void of atmosphere, climaxing in one of the worst speeches I've yet read from a main character. Basically, she wants to be treated like an adult. She wants to act like a spoiled, selfish child of course, but be treated like an adult. Okay, sweetie. Welcome to prison. It's where adults who do the things you did end up.
Rating: Two stars. One for the ocean birds and one for the secondary characters like Seamus and Ross.