Great Circle – by Maggie Shipstead – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

A rich, complex novel with many three-dimensional characters. It tells the stories of a pioneering woman pilot and an actress determined to due her justice in a contemporary biopic. Author Maggie Shipstead’s considerable research is evident in the detail she includes and, by the end, you will feel like you too have flown primitive aircraft into risky, desolate locales. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

Like SO MANY books published these days, this one alternates between the stories of these two women in two different time periods.
• 1930s Marian Graves (the stronger storyline in my opinion) — defies nearly all of society’s conventions in order to fly planes. Think Amelia Earhart without fame or financial support.
• 21st century Hadley Baxter — an actress desperate to find a role where she can prove she has talent, rather than just fame.
In general, I find alternating story lines in different time periods an overused writer’s construct, though Maggie Shipstead does it with more finesse than many.

While initially I LIKED this book, I also found I wasn’t rushing to get back to it. There are lots of characters introduced and I wasn’t quite sure where the book was headed. But this is a book that definitely improves the farther you go because as I progressed, I found Marian’s story more and more compelling. So much so that I sometimes got so immersed in her story that I’d forget Hadley even existed (feeling annoyed then at Hadley’s “interruptions”).

Marian’s is a story of single-minded determination, with a passion of flying as her central life’s drive. Raised with a great deal of freedom in the Midwest, alongside her twin brother, Marian explores her surroundings, takes risks, discovers sex, becomes the object of a bootlegger’s obsession, serves during World War II, and finds love — all the while remaining fiercely protective of and connected to her shy brother, Jamie, a sensitive artist. Marian also illustrates just how difficult it was to be an independent, ambitious, unmarried woman in mid-20th century America. I LOVED Marian!

Hadley’s story felt less original to me. After quitting the film franchise that made her famous, she secures the lead role in a small, independent production about Marian’s life. Hadley’s story is more cliched – centered around hedonistic Hollywood. Big egos, alcohol and drugs, and plenty of casual sex used to secure film roles, satisfy lust, even cure boredom. All without much emotion or thought to potential consequences. I never did care much about Hadley.

But there are a few wonderful supporting characters I cared deeply about. Marian’s brother, Jamie shows what it was like to be a sensitive male (loving animals and drawing) coming of age in a Midwestern culture that honors more “manly” pursuits. And Caleb, an enigmatic loner, who provides Marian with a lifelong friendship that winds up sustaining them both.

Maggie Shipstead
(Photo from her Website)

This book is quite a saga. From Missoula, Montana to New York City, from Alaska to London, and finally from the Arctic to Antarctica — it a full one hundred years of historical fiction. Not surprisingly, the book is on the long side at 608 pages. And it did feel long, mostly, early on; the first half is much slower than the second.

For me, this might have been a stronger book if it was solely Marian’s story. But overall, it’s a well-crafted novel, worth the investment. And I will now look into other books by Maggie Shipstead.

More about author Maggie Shipstead.

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