At almost 600 pages I would call this book sprawling, but Maggie Shipstead jokingly calls it ‘slender wisp of a thing’. Understandable when you know the original manuscript was over 1000 pages. Irrespective of its size it is a riveting story of the life of Marian Graves, a fictional pilot, and her attempt to fly around the world but choosing the route through the poles rather than the equatorial one.
I got this book from my Bigger Half for Christmas and this time he put more time into the research, after the previous year’s failure with Shuggie Bain. And this time it was certainly worth it. I spent three full weeks immersed in Marian’s world. I still struggle with focusing on reading for longer periods of time hence it took me so long.
The book really comprises two storylines. One is of Marian’s Graves life that led to her challenge to the title’s great circle in 1950. The second one is set in 2015, where we meet a young Hollywood star Hadley Baxter at a point where she managed swiftly to end her career in a hyper-popular franchise.
To be honest Hadley’s story really didn’t resonate with me. She was orphaned as a baby, raised by an uncle whose lack of caring bordered on neglect, started her career early, and basically haphazardly careened through her life so far. She is shallow, seeking some sense and meaning in her life, extremely self-centered. And it feels like her character is never fully developed, she is more a plot prop than a proper protagonist.
Marian on the other hand is a fully-fledged complex personality. We get to know her story before she is even born, understanding the unlikely match her sailor father and socialite mother were. Marian like Hadley is also raised by an uncle and also has more freedom than we’d think wise now. When she is twelve she falls in love with the idea of flying a plane, since then her whole life is organized around this one purpose. She is ready to devote anything else to it.
During her flight challenging the great circle Marian vanishes, so we know how the book ends, but the way Shipstead describes her life before that is fantastic. It is not only a chronicle of Marian’s life but a snap of how some people lived in the first half of the 20th century. It also reminds us what an extreme watershed moment was WWII. There is a clear before and after to the way the world works. We meet also Marian’s twin brother and their friend Caleb, their lives drifting further and closer as Marian’s obsession pushes her forward with little regard for safety or other people.
I am full of admiration for Shipstead for creating such a believable and yet riveting biography for her character. While reading the book I had to google at least three times to double-check that Marian is indeed a fictional character. In addition to a great story and panorama of the first half of the 20th century, this book is also a homage to the fearless women pilots who before WWII broke any boundaries they came across.
A wonderful book, that could be even better by cutting out Hadley’s part of the story.
Here you can find selected quotes from Great Circle
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska