29th September, 2021

Review: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf)

Normally, the Booker Prize judges and I don't necessarily share reading tastes, but this year I found one book from the shortlist that I really liked. I read it together with some Litsy friends as part of our inofficial bookclub and it was, so far, the only novel that we all enjoyed. That in itself has to count for something. :-) But it really is an outstanding book!

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There—after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes—Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in a wealthy bootlegger who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian's disappearance in Antarctica. Vibrant, canny, disgusted with the claustrophobia of Hollywood, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after a romantic film franchise has imprisoned her in the grip of cult celebrity. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds, thrillingly, alongside Marian's own story, as the two women's fates—and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different geographies and times—collide. 

The plot synopsis itself already sounds epic and this is indeed THE word I would use to describe this novel. It is a sweeping tale of two women trying to make their way. Two women, two timelines (from early 1900s Montana to present day LA) - this is such a gorgeously written book that you won't even mind that it's a bit of a chunkster at a little over 600 pages. I adored Marian's story and found myself becoming really invested in her narrative. I also enjoyed the Hadley part of the novel, even though her character was driving me insane with her sense of entitlement of a child spoilt by too early success.

Great Circle is simply brimming with loving attention to detail and especially Marian is so well-written that I actually believed she was a historical character for about half of the book. You can tell that Shipstead did meticulous research for the aviation passages and that effort really pays off. This is a book that will steal quite a bit of your time, not because it's long but because you'll want to make it last. So if you are in the mood for an encompassing, beautifully composed mammoth of a story that is worth every single second of your reading time, Great Circle is the right book for you. Make yourself a cuppa and curl up with it sometime this autumn and winter - you won't regret it. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

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