3 good new coming-of-age novels

Three characters come of age on three different continents in this week's fiction roundup. Ordinarily, Jane Eyre would be the most put-upon character in any given round-up, but even Lowood School looks like a Caribbean vacation compared with a boy whose Olympic dreams run smack into genocide.

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1. 'The Flight of Gemma Hardy,' by Margot Livesy

Lonely and having lost her mother, nine-year-old Margot Livesy “fell in love” with “Jane Eyre.” Now, the award-winning Scottish writer transports Charlotte Brontë's classic to 1950s and '60s Scotland in her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy.

While living some 140 years in the future, fierce, justice-demanding Gemma will be instantly recognizable to Brontë's readers. (In this case, she comes with an affinity for birds and an Icelandic back story, having been brought to Scotland by her vicar uncle after her parents die.) The first chapters hew closely to the original: the selfish aunt, the spoiled cousins, the horrible boarding school – check, check, check.

Like Brontë, Livesy attended a Lowood-like establishment, where she “prayed nightly for the school to burn down.” And the privations Gemma endures as a “working girl,” who spends more time peeling potatoes for 120 people than studying, have the ring of authenticity. “Claypoole had been built to be occupied by a few lords and ladies waited on by an army of servants. Now the proportions were reversed; a dozen working girls struggled to take care of more than a hundred regular pupils, and the teachers,” Gemma drily notes. 

When the school closes, teenaged Gemma advertises for a position as a nanny. “I offer you a tomboy for a pupil and more weather than any person should have to deal with. This is a lonely place – except for the birds! – and whoever comes here needs to be forewarned,” the housekeeper of Blackbird Hall writes back. Ignoring well-meaning advice from her teachers – “For heaven's sake, Hardy, why would you want to mind some brat in the back of beyond?” – off Gemma hies to the Orkneys.

In Livesy's hands the islands, with their wild isolation and Stone Age ruins, are a terrific substitute for the remoteness of northern England circa 1820.

But if the Orkneys are a satisfying stand-in for Thornfield Hall, occasionally grumpy banker Hugh Sinclair is no Mr. Rochester. Their love affair feels perfunctory – almost a whim on his part. And while a rich 41-year-old male being attracted to a penniless 18-year-old isn't exactly improbable, it's not the stuff that epic romances are made of. It's also really tough to come up with an obstacle to true love that can top a madwoman in the attic. Reader, I didn't want her to marry him.

In a contrast with “Jane Eyre,” where a reader can't wait to get back to Thornfield, the last third of “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” gets even stronger. Livesy deviates a bit more from Brontë's playbook as Gemma makes a place for herself in the world. And while Jane never sat for her O levels, you just know she would have aced them.

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