Author: Maggie Shipstead
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read Feb. 2022 on Audible)
I feel like I have a lot to say about Great Circle, so I will do my best to capture my thoughts on this giant book, keeping in mind that it took me more than a month to read, so some of the early details are already a little fuzzy.
If you’re looking for epic historical fiction, this is definitely it. This book has been calling my name for a while, but I was a little intimidated by it’s 600+ page length. Eventually I decided to buy it on Audible because I’d been flying through my credits faster than I could earn them and thought a 26 hour audiobook would slow me down (I was right).
Great Circle is the comprehensive story of fictional pilot Marian Graves, who grew up in the midwest in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the dream of one day becoming a pilot. Her life spans prohibition and World War II and she eventually attempts to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole. In the last leg of her journey she disappears and is never heard from again. In present day, her story inspires a movie and famous actress Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian. The book is predominantly about Marian, but it does switch back and forth from Marian’s to Hadley’s timeline.
When I say this is a comprehensive look at Marian’s life, I mean it. The book starts by introducing us to her parents before they meet and covers every aspect of her life. She loses her parents as infants and she and her twin brother Jamie grow up in Montana with their Uncle Wallace, who is an artist and an alcoholic. As her twin, Jamie also features heavily in the story and we get to watch the two of them grow up.
From the first time she sees a plane, Marian wants nothing more than to be a pilot. She quits school to save money for flying lessons and her aspirations end up taking her all over the world. I feel like I could expand so much on the plot because it’s so substantial and so much happens between her childhood and her epic journey around the world. but this is meant to be a review rather than a summary so let’s talk about what I did and didn’t like.
Most importantly, I liked Marian. She is a fascinating character. She is driven by her ambitions, which are so different from many women of the day that I couldn’t help but admire her. She wants nothing more than to be free, but is consistently limited by the constraints of her circumstance and sex. She has a limited moral compass when it comes to the means that will enable her to achieve her desires and she’s prepared to run at life with both arms wide open.
Second, I liked how much history this book covers, from World War I to prohibition, to pioneer Alaska and World War II. It is incredibly ambitious in scope and I really felt like I was living someone’s whole life. Sometimes the plot got a little carried away with too much depth about side characters, but at the same time, it made me feel totally enmeshed in Marian’s world to also be surrounded by the stories of her family.
Finally, I liked a lot of the themes explored. As a female pilot, gender is a key constraint in Marian’s life. Whereas Jamie is free to go off and pursue art and women and build the life he wants, she hits roadblocks and compromises every step in the way. But I loved that while she gives a lot of herself, she was still able to recognize some parts of her life that she would refuse to allow to be transactional. Namely that she did not want children. It’s pretty radical for a woman in the 1930’s to be opposed to having children, but I liked that she was unwilling to compromise this key part of herself and that it’s ultimately what motivates her to pursue a better fortune.
It’s going to sound weird to say, but I loved Barclay McQueen. And by love, I mean I loved the brilliance of Maggie Shipstead in creating a character that I hated so much with every fiber of my being. Barclay was the perfect foil in this story. His wealth and desire and entitlement highlighted everything that was enraging about men and sex in this era (and many era’s thereafter). Because of the structure of the timelines, you ultimately know how the story is going to end from the beginning and you know Marian must eventually rid herself of Barclay, but the satisfaction of her finally taking back control of her life is so freaking cathartic. Yet at the same time, I lamented Barclay because I felt no other character was able to drive the tension and conflict in the story quite as successfully as he did. He’s a character you love to hate and his absence was mildly disappointing in that he is what inspired such strength in Marian’s character.
Then there’s the journey around the world. There’s a lot that happens with the war in between that I didn’t find particularly compelling, but oh boy, Shipstead had me in Antarctica. Ruth was an interesting character, but I felt that she was more of a stepping stone to introduce Eddie Bloom and how I loved him! I thought Marian was going to break my heart at the end, but it was Eddie who decimated it. He was such a sweet soul and serves to highlight just how unfair the world can be, in more ways than one. We know how this is going to end from the beginning, and yet I’d never really thought to stop and consider the implications, to consider the heartbreak we are barreling towards throughout 600 pages.
So what didn’t I like? A few things, but mostly the length. I feel this has been a common refrain for me this year. I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to read waffle anymore and I admire an author who is able to be concise. In the case of this book, it wasn’t so much about length as being compelling. In some ways, I think length works for this book. Because it’s so large in scope, length contributes to the feeling of really knowing this person by spending a lot of time with them. My complaint is more that frankly, some of this was really boring. I didn’t even mind that the story starts with a saga about Marian’s parents because it was interesting enough, but we spend a lot of time with Marian learning to fly, Jamie and his art, and a whole lot of nothing about world war II. I just wanted the writing in these sections to be a little tighter. I appreciated Shipstead writing about Marian’s traumas and triumphs because they gave so much depth to her character, but I felt like she needed more secondary characters like Barclay to really drive the story. I felt like the book lost a lot of its tension once Marian goes to Alaska and it didn’t really get it back until near the end of the war.
The other part I didn’t really like was Hadley. I understand now that I’ve finished the book why Hadley was included, but I didn’t really think her necessary. Honestly, her entire story could have been cut from this book and it wouldn’t have substantially changed anything – I just would have been happier because then it would have been shorter. I wasn’t really interested in Hadley at all and her tie to Marian felt pretty irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Her story doesn’t really even focus that much on the filming of the movie and I couldn’t bring myself to care about her personal drama – Marian was a more well realized character and I was only interested in spending time in her timeline.
Overall, it’s all leaving me at a bit of a loss for how to rate the book. What I liked, I loved, and what I didn’t like, I really didn’t like. I’d kind of like to talk about the ending because it was so surprising, but at the same time, I don’t have a lot to say about it. I wanted to love Caleb, but struggled a lot with his character. Marian goes through some pretty traumatic sexual experiences and though I think in some ways, her and Caleb were both victims, I still found it difficult to overlook how he manipulated her when they were young.
The other thing that was disappointing to me (though I only fault myself for this) was the realization that Marian Graves was not a real person. For some reason I thought this was based on a true story for 95% of the book. It made it easier for me to accept some of the plot decisions because I thought the author was just following the natural trajectory of Marian’s life. Knowing now that the whole thing was fictional – it explains a lot – but I wish the author had made some different choices in the storytelling.
Anyways, I think it’s a solid 3.5 star read. I’m going to rate it up because I thought there were moments where the characterization and writing really shone and I can see why it was shortlisted for the Booker. It wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be though and I think sometimes it did get lost in its “epic” scope, but otherwise, a very compelling read.