Quick Review: GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf)

ShipsteadM-GreatCircleUSA sweeping, engaging story of adventure, determination, and the ties that bind

An unforgettable story of a daredevil female aviator determined to chart her own course in life, at any cost…

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.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Maggie Shipstead, and it turned out to be an excellent one to begin with. It’s mostly the story of Marian Graves, and the people who fall in and out of her life, and her (successful) pursuit of a career as a female aviator. It is also the story of Hadley Baxter, an actress in the present day who finds herself cast in a biopic of Marian’s life. Alternating between the two stories, it’s a sweeping, engaging, and immersive novel. I really enjoyed it.

The novel is not split evenly between Marian’s story and Hadley’s. The bulk of it recounts Marian’s life — actually, it begins before she and her twin brother are born, but quickly catches us up to her childhood and beyond. We learn of the tragedy that sees the twins put into the care of their artist uncle in Montana, how the hardscrabble childhood informed Marian’s determination to succeed, despite what society expects from her. The story includes plenty of coverage of Jamie’s life and experiences, as well as other important people in Marian’s life. Shipstead does a fantastic job, bringing the different times and places to life — whether its bootlegging in Montana, flying in Alaska, San Francisco during the interwar years, the intensity of World War II, or the bitter iciness of the Antarctic, the author has a real gift for evoking place and atmosphere.

ShipsteadM-GreatCircleUKMeanwhile, in the present, Hadley is currently experiencing the implosion of her career as the female lead of a YA adventure-type series — something along the lines of Twilight, Hunger Games, et al (not many details are provided). Through Hadley’s thoughts and words, Shipstead isn’t particularly generous to this genre of movie/fiction, but one understands Hadley’s reaction to the ways in which she is treated — by the fandom, the studio, the series creator, and so forth. While more scathing than I think I would ever think, there are some interesting and worthwhile critiques of the ferocity and rigidity of certain fandoms, not to mention their fickleness. Aside from that, Hadley experiences many of the worst things that can befall a female actress in Hollywood. It was interesting and well-written. I often found myself wanting a bit more from Hadley’s perspective, but Marian’s story was, it’s true, far more compelling.

As the novel progresses, though, we start to see how what we “know” about Marian’s life and fate are not exactly the whole truth. The two threads start to diverge quite a bit in the latter third of the novel, as Marian’s life is disrupted by various momentous events, personal and global — events that are not detailed in the various documents that have informed the movie in production. While not explicit, it’s a bit of an examination of how our stories can change if they are left to others to tell. It’s also a story, in a way, of how we look for inspiration and connection with others whose lives have perhaps shared certain experiences — whether its breaking with and overcoming expectations, or childhood tragedy. It builds to a satisfying ending, one with a nice twist thrown in.

If you’re a fan of substantial, expansive stories of adventure, featuring characters determined to forge their own paths and do what they want to do, then Great Circle is for you. Populated by well-drawn (if, perhaps, sometimes a bit distant) characters, written in excellent prose, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I’ll be reading more by Shipstead as soon as I can.

Definitely recommended.


Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is due to be published tomorrow by Knopf in North America, and Doubleday in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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