A Literary Escape
BY KIM KOVACS
Maggie Shipstead's Great Circle follows the lives of two fictional women, Prohibition-era aviatrix Marian Graves and contemporary actress Hadley Baxter, who lands the role of Marian in an upcoming movie. When approached about the film, Hadley has just blown up her life by creating a scandal she knew would likely get her ousted from the franchise that made her career. Feeling a certain kinship with Marian (both were orphaned as infants and raised by dissolute uncles), she accepts the role, dreaming of Oscar glory for her participation in her first ‘serious’ film.
Alternating with Hadley's first-person account is the third-person narration of Marian's life, from the circumstances surrounding her birth to her fate decades later. The bulk of the story is Marian's, and Shipstead fleshes out her life in such believable detail I found it hard to remember the character wasn't a real person. Although Marian's passion for flying underlies every part of her narrative, the book is less about her exploits as a pilot and the lengths she goes to achieve her aims and more about her journey of selfdiscovery.
The author brilliantly illustrates the many factors in Marian's life that mould her into the person she becomes by her last flight. We develop an in-depth understanding of this remarkable character and are loath to let her go. Hadley's chapters are briefer, and although they cover a shorter time period, her journey feels just as real as Marian's. She's pretty obnoxious at first, a stereotypical entitled Hollywood starlet, but as she becomes more involved with the film and the people behind its production, she develops a complexity that ultimately makes her more sympathetic.
As with Marian, the author creates a multifaceted character in Hadley, one who feels real to the reader. Shipstead's writing is gorgeous from start to finish, whether she's describing the countryside ("October leans into November. The trees are topped with gold, the cottonwoods bright as apricot flesh. The landscape flares and shimmers"); Marion's observations ("With the right instruments, you have a fighting chance of levelling out even if the cloud goes all the way down and brushes the earth like the marabou hem of a diaphanous white robe worn by God"); or Hadley's perceptions ("[S]he just sat there and stared like she was trying to turn me to stone with her mind.
Or maybe she couldn't move her face. She's starting to have work done. In 20 years, she'll be a skin balloon with eyeholes"). There's just enough of this lush writing to entertain, but not so much that it bogs down the narrative. Also interspersed are bits of aviation history as they occurred during Marion's timeline. For example, the author inserts a couple of paragraphs about Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight in 1927 that occurs just as 13-year-old Marion is becoming acquainted with a pair of barnstormers who take her on her first flights.
I occasionally find dual timelines confusing or annoying (sometimes the characters are too similar, sometimes the jump between them happens too frequently, sometimes I feel one or more storyline could have been jettisoned, Such was not the case with Great Circle. Switches between the two stories are so expertly crafted I'm hard-pressed to name a novel that accomplishes this feat more skilfully. At around 600 pages, the book is also quite long; however, I never felt like it was a slog. I'll sometimes come across a doorstopper and think about how it could have been edited into a more manageable length, but not this time; there's not a single sentence I'd have wanted left out.
Although I wouldn't call it a page-turner, its pacing is excellent and it kept me engaged, start to finish. Great Circle is one of my favourites of the year so far, and I'd unhesitatingly suggest it to anyone looking for an exquisite, characterdriven work of literature.