Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

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“I was born to be a wanderer” is the first sentence of Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. The sweeping saga of the fictional pilot, Marian Graves, and the history of women’s flight soars through the pages as Marian struggles to fulfill her dream of flying.

The novel begins with the birth of fraternal twins, Marian and Jamie, to Addison and Annabel Graves, an oddly matched pair. Annabel, probably suffering from post-partum depression, has no interest in the twins. Addison, a ship’s captain, decides Annabel needs to travel and a sea voyage is in order. The Josephina Eterna, cursed at launching by an unbroken christening bottle, is his ship. On the voyage, six weeks later, there is an explosion on the ship, and Addison strives to save his passengers and crew. He rushes to his stateroom to find his twins and their mother. The twins are alone in their bassinettes with Annabel nowhere in sight. He acts without hesitation to save the twins. He rushes to Lifeboat 12 and fires his pistol into the air, planning to pass the twins to someone in the lifeboat. As he looks at the panicked passengers, he realizes that he cannot entrust his flesh and blood to them. He lunges into the lifeboat and seals his fate, a captain who abandoned his ship! Later, Addison is sentenced to Sing Sing, where he is imprisoned for over nine years. He never revealed the reason for the explosion and keeps the secret for the rest of his life.

The twins grow up with Addison’s bachelor brother, Wallace, a painter. He is also an alcoholic who likes to gamble. As the story develops, Wallace’s devils slowly take over his life and the twins have to rely more and more on their own devices. Marian is the more resourceful. At age 12, after attending an airshow by barnstorming pilots, Marian decides she wants to learn to fly. So, she takes a series of shady jobs to get the money. Finally, she marries a bootlegger in order to pay for her flying lessons and airplane. She lives with him until he becomes abusive, and she decides to run away to pursue her own dreams. The novel glosses Marian’s struggles as she becomes a driver for bootleggers in Prohibition-era Montana, an early aviator in the Alaskan and Canadian wildernesses and contributes, along with other women, to the war effort in England.

The novel is framed by the story of actress Hadley Baxter, who is cast to play Marian Graves in a 2014 production of Graves’ life. Hadley has been fired from the production of the hit series Archangel because of her scandalous behavior. The novel draws parallels between the two women, but I found the comparison between them a tedious imposition. The story would have been much better, in my opinion, had Shipstead simply told the story of Marian Graves and left out the contrived framing story of Hadley.

Lynn Steger Strong, writing in the New York Times in May 2021, said, “Great Circle grasps for and ultimately reaches something extraordinary. It pulls off this feat through individual sentences and sensations—by getting each secondary and tertiary character right. In thinking about flight (and ambition and art), there is a suggestion that the larger the reach, the more necessary a stable foundation. Here we have an action-packed book rich with character, but it’s at the level of the sentence and the scene, the small but unforgettable salient detail, that books finally succeed or fail. In that, Great Circle is consistently, often breathtakingly, sound.” While I agree with Strong’s analysis, clever editing would have decreased the lengthy novel and made it more powerful.

The characters are richly developed and decidedly diverse. Marian’s twin, Jamie, is a sensitive soul, a vegetarian and a painter, possibly even better than his uncle. Marian is far more adventurous. Their uncle Wallace, a kind but weak man, raises the twins with benevolent neglect. Barclay Macqueen, Marian’s bootlegger husband, is a conniving scoundrel who captures Marian’s heart in the only way he can—he buys her a plane and hires a pilot to teach her to fly. The characters are entertaining, but ultimately, it’s the writing and the storytelling that sustain the novel through its wide-ranging storyline.

Great Circle is Maggie Shipstead’s third novel. Seating Arrangements, her first novel, was well received and won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Great Circle is an epic novel and requires the dedication of an avid reader. Marian Graves is a different and unusual character. She is hard to warm up to. Still, the story is well told, and the history of women’s flight is captivating. By combining these two elements, Maggie Shipstead created an ambitious novel in Great Circle.