Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

by

[Tricia]

This is a sweeping, propulsive, in some ways old fashioned, work of historical fiction that, even though I resisted it at times, I ultimately loved. It tells the story of Marian Graves, an Amelia Earhart-like early woman aviator whose dream is to circumnavigate the globe from North to South Pole. It also tells the contemporary story of Hadley Baxter, the disgraced young star of a Twilight-like film franchise who has been hired to play Marian Graves in a biopic. I initially resisted this use of dual timelines which has become common in historical fiction and can sometimes break up the flow of a novel for me. However, I came to appreciate the value of Hadley’s storyline. For one thing, the story of Marian and her twin brother Jamie, from the very start when they are rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner, is almost relentlessly eventful, both in terms of world events (Prohibition, World War II), and their own lives. I found myself worrying about their well-being so much that the contemporary story of Hadley and her mostly surface level Hollywood problems came as a relief. Also, I appreciated that Hadley seemed to mirror my own feeling of being more interested and invested in Marian’s story than in the world of contemporary Hollywood. And Hadley’s story does serve as a commentary on how in some ways the roles assigned to women can still constrain and stifle as they did in Marian’s time.

But the pulse of the book is Marian’s story, and it is quite a story. The events of her life alone are riveting: growing up mostly unsupervised in Montana, working as a driver for bootleggers during Prohibition to earn money for flying lessons, serving as a pilot in the British Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II, and of course her attempt to fly from North to South Pole. But what interested me most about Marian was her struggle to figure out how and where she fit, mostly due to a lifetime of being forced into roles that didn’t fit. In terms of her dreams, her identity, her sexuality, she just did not fit the conventional mold for women. What she did have, however, and what drove her, was her love of flying, and the freedom and sense of self she found in flight. And that is what set her apart from other characters in the book who also struggled to find their place, particularly Jamie and Eddie. A wonderful aspect of this book is the richness of the surrounding characters. There are so many memorable people in this book I wished I could spend more time with. Although the book is long (over 600 pages), I think it is important that the author takes the time that she does to tell this story. You are with Marian long enough that you come to cherish some of her memories and miss the people that she loses. Highly recommend to historical fiction lovers.

Great Circle is available at the Library, and on Libby/Overdrive.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

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