Review: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Review: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

A.A. Knopf (2021)

My Quick Take: Great Circle was a great read! But while I loved most of it, some aspects left me cold.


Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Shipstead’s Great Circle is an epic that spans a life: Marian Graves is a woman orphaned as an infant and raised by her uncle, alongside her twin brother Jamie. She doesn’t fit the mould, and discovers her passion early in life: to fly planes. This was a tricky endeavour for a woman in 1920s America, and this is a story of how she reaches her goal, and eventually sets out to fly a “great circle” around the globe. Alongside Marian’s story, we follow several people that orbit her circle, including her brother Jamie and friend Caleb. 

Shipstead gives us a second timeline. In 2015 Los Angeles, movie star Hadley Baxter is set to star in a movie about Marian’s life. She was also orphaned–as an infant by parents who died in a plane crash–and raised by her uncle. Both Marian and Hadley struggle with finding their way, and they both seem at odds with their romantic relationships: Hadley tending to define herself in terms of her relationships with men, and Marian finding herself in a relationship that both helps and harms her. 

So here’s the thing: I think most everyone likes this book a lot. And I do too. Really! However, there were downsides for me that detracted from the novel overall.

First, what I loved about Great Circle:

Almost everything about Marian’s story and timeline, particularly her relationship to flight and her fight to learn to be a pilot, her adventures during WWII, and her quest of circumnavigation. She was a wonderful character, driven and sometimes dark, and truly a whole, complex person. I love how Shipstead explored the ideas of queerness with Marian but chose not to define her. Marian assumed male and female personae, and had varied and changing sexual preferences. I liked the secondary characters that populated her life as well. This storyline had some beautiful comments on life and what it means to follow a passion, or to sometimes surrender to despair. Near the end of the book, Marian contemplates her possible death as she pilots her airplane over a dangerous stretch of ocean:
“Marian can imagine the plume of herself riding the westerly wind over the Southern Ocean, the bits of teeth and bone sinking at once, a gritty gray film settling on the surface until the chop mixes her in. But she doesn't know what will happen to the part of her that is not her body. All the times he has brushed against death, she’s never given much thought to what might come after. Now she considers it. She supposes there will be nothing. She supposes each of us destroys the world. We close our eyes and snuff out all that has existed, all that will ever be."
I particularly liked Jamie’s point of view: he’s also a misfit, a gentle artist who abhors killing but must make brutal choices in WWII. As a teen, he adopts stray dogs and takes comfort in them, as a buffer against a world of suffering:
“The dog jumped up onto his bed, circled, and settled. Everything in the shape of the animal commanded love: her long soft ears, the black hairs mingled with the rad on her flanks, the way she slung the tip of her tail cozily over her nose. He could not make peace with the magnitude of suffering in the world. It registered in him as a wave of heat and tingling, an acceleration in his heart and a lightness in his head–a sensation both puny and unbearable. The only way to live was to shut it out, but even when he turned his thoughts away, he was still aware of it, as one who lives alongside a levee is aware of the deluge waiting on the other side.”
Later, torn apart by what he’s witnessed and done as military artist tasked to produce paintings documenting WWII, he is tormented by what he sees in himself:
“He struggled to write anything meaningful at all to Marian. What could he tell her? That the war had crushed and smoothed him into a different substance entirely, something hard and flat? Apparently he was a person who could watch men drown and feel no pity. He’d been present for every minute, every second of his own life, and he hadn’t known himself. He’d thought he could paint the war and not belong to the war. He’d fancied himself an observer, but there was no such thing here."
Here’s what I didn’t love:

Sometimes I felt the writing took me a little close to the pulp fiction novels of the 1980s that were just a tad salacious. Remember Sidney Sheldon? Hints of that, very occasionally. I loved those classic novels, don’t get me wrong, but those parts didn’t fit with the overall literary tone.

I also didn’t like Hadley’s story at all. It didn’t have much time on the page compared to Marian’s sections, and I always felt wrenched out of the main story. Hadley wasn’t a compelling character, and didn’t seem a dynamic or thoughtful enough match for Marian. Personally, I think the whole book could have been written without her story. Hadley's character served to unearth details of Marian's life posthumously for the reader, but I think this could have been done effectively with brief asides in the narrator’s omniscient voice instead. 

At the end of the day, though, I would enthusiastically recommend this book for an interesting, absorbing read because I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. It was immersive and fun and just deep enough to feel a bit epic.
“It isn’t how I thought it would be, now that the circle is almost closed, the beginning and the end held apart by one last fearsome piece of water. I thought I would believe I’d seen the world, but there is too much of the world and too little of life. I thought I would believe I’d completed something, but now I doubt anything can be completed. I thought I would not be afraid. I thought I would become more than I am, but now I know I am less than I thought.”