Review: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (2021)

Blurb

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021.

For fans of The GoldfinchAll the Light We Cannot See and The Girlsthis monumentally powerful epic weaves together the astonishing lives of a daredevil female aviator and the Hollywood rebel who will play her on screen.

From the days of giant passenger ships sliding past Arctic icebergs, to the daring pilots of WWII, to present-day Hollywood and its malcontents, at the core of this story is the indomitable Marian Graves and her twin brother Jamie who are twice abandoned by their parents. Marian and Jamie grow up roaming Montana forests, more comfortable with landscape than with people.

When a pair of aerobats take their exhilarating show to a nearby airfield, Marian’s life is changed forever. Watching them roll, dive, and loop in their mini plane, she can think of nothing else but flying. As she grows into a woman, she sacrifices everything to command the breathtaking sense of freedom, of utter control over her own fate, that she feels when in the air. She becomes one of the most fearless pilots of her time, and in 1949 she sets out to do what no one has done before: fly the Great Circle around the earth, north to south around the poles. Shortly before completing the journey, her plane disappears, lost to history.

In 2015, Hadley Baxter, former child star and poster girl of the blockbuster Archangel franchise, has just been fired for cheating on her on-screen boyfriend. Struggling to escape the fury of the fans, she grasps at an offer for the comeback role of a lifetime: to play the famed female pilot Marian Graves in a biopic. From the first pages of the script, she feels an instant connection with Marian, a woman who refused to be bound by gravity or any of the other strictures of her time. After filming is complete, her bond grows stronger as she begins to question whether the Great Marian Graves really did die at all.

Maggie Shipstead is the author of the bestselling and prize-winning debut novel Seating Arrangements. With Great Circle, she cements her place among a famed list of American Literary Stars as one of the greatest storytellers of our time.

Review

Many thanks to the publishers for sending me a proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

I’d seen several awesome people on Book Twitter raving about this novel, so I had a feeling I was in for a treat with Great Circle. I have to admit, it took me a while to pick it up, mostly because I got very behind with my reading last year and I was slightly intimidated by its size. I wish I hadn’t waited – this book is an utter triumph. It has the sweeping feel of an epic, but is also tightly focused on understanding the characters, digging beneath the surface. It’s totally immersive, and, appropriately for a novel with a plot thread about film-making, very cinematic. Reading it feels akin to following a camera swooping and soaring, alongside Marian in her plane, and then zooming in for the smaller, character-driven moments.

There is so much going on in this book, which spans continents and a century, but the material is handed so elegantly that it is never overwhelming and always a joy to read. I was surprised to find that I was just as intrigued by the modern sections featuring Hadley and her attempts to bring Marian to life on the screen as I was by the fascinating life of Marian herself. A lot of this is due to the clever interweaving of the two timelines, so that as we gradually unravel the mystery surrounding Marian’s disappearance, Hadley is also moving towards a new understanding both of the character she is playing and of herself. There is also a fantastic cast of characters in each storyline – everyone is vividly portrayed and comes to life as you read – from Caleb, whom I fell a bit in love with, to the complicated monstrosity of Marian’s husband, to the hilarious Sir Hugo – these are characters who stay with you.

Great Circle dazzles with its range, its dexterity, its beautiful language and heart-breaking moments. It is the sort of book that makes you sad to reach the final pages, makes you wish you could experience it all again for the first time. It covers such a broad spectrum of emotion, and does so with a delicate touch that gently guides you through its intricacies, so that reading it is pure pleasure. Anyone who hasn’t read this yet is in for a wonderful ride, I promise.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is published by Transworld and is available to purchase here.

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