Book Review

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead


From the night she is rescued as a baby out of the flames of a sinking ship; to the day she joins a pair of daredevil pilots looping and diving over the rugged forests of her childhood, to the thrill of flying Spitfires during the war, the life of Marian Graves has always been marked by a lust for freedom and danger.

In 1950, she embarks on the great circle flight, circumnavigating the globe. It is Marian’s life dream and her final journey, before she disappears without a trace.

Half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a scandal-ridden Hollywood actress whose own parents perished in a plane crash is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves, a role that will lead her to probe the true mystery behind the vanished pilot.

One of the things I like about the Booker Prize is that there is always something included that I’ve not heard of before and that I may not otherwise have come across.  Great Circle is one such title this year and it’s one that I particularly enjoyed. I didn’t include it in my shortlist prediction (more fool me!) but I am delighted that it has progressed to the next stage of this prestigious prize. 

Split across two time periods, the reader is introduced to Marian Graves and Hadley Baxter.  The focus is predominantly on Marian’s life, charting her journey from her birth in 1914 and through her childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.  I was struck early on by her sheer determination, and there’s a sense that she will achieve whatever she sets out to do. A chance encounter with two pilots sets the course of her ambitions and she begins to dream of taking to the skies herself.  It’s a difficult path for anyone, but particularly for a woman at that time and we see the constant barrage of sexism that she faces – something which makes her disguise herself as a man to avoid it, although this only works to an extent.  Additionally, there’s the prevailing view that, as a woman, she will have children at some point and won’t be “complete” until she does.  They clearly haven’t reckoned with Marian Graves, and it was obvious from the beginning that she would never settle for status quo.

She does marry, however – something that makes her life much more difficult than she anticipates.  There’s passion between Marian and her husband, Blake, and yet the reader knows from the beginning that it won’t go well.  He does help her when she needs it – organising a tutor who is prepared to take on a female student, and paying for her lessons and a plane, and yet rather than philanthropy, there’s a sense that he’s buying her affections even as he denies it. It’s a debt that’s difficult to repay, and her husband’s control seems absolute when he takes away her freedom and flight, believing that – deep down – what Marian really wants is a child.  It’s tough reading at times – Marian’s frustration is palpable, and there are some dark moments within this period of her life.  I had to remind myself throughout that we know that she does get through it. 

Get out she does, and – having left Blake behind – she pursues her dream, turning it into a career by initially transporting cargo and later as a pilot in the Second World War. She then decides that she wants to fly around the world, not around the equator, but crossing both poles.  It’s a difficult task, particularly the final stretch from Antarctica to New Zealand, and yet this simply adds fuel to the fire.  There’s a mystery that runs throughout the novel – it’s introduced in the very first pages, and runs throughout the narrative.  We know that – somewhat against the odds – Marian does set out on this quest, but that she goes missing somewhere along the way.  She is presumed dead, her body and plane lost in the depths of the ocean, but no one knows for sure what happened. 

This is where Hadley Baxter comes in many years later.  A Hollywood actor, she is offered the opportunity to play Marian in a biopic, bringing to life a woman whose name is up there with that of Amelia Earhart.  Hadley becomes caught up in Marian’s story, and while she doesn’t expect to the answer the questions surrounding Marian’s disappearance, she does become caught up in the mystery of it all.  From the outside, Hadley’s life looks charmed.  She is wealthy, and seems to have everything that she could wish for.  I think that there’s an element of poking fun at the Hollywood lifestyle, and the diets in particular.  But the author explores that darker side as well, and we see a young star caught up in the glitz and the glamour as well as the alcohol and the drugs that all too often play a part.  She also has her own #MeToo moment – an incident that seems all too plausible having heard the accounts of many who’ve spoken up about their own experiences.  It highlights the darker side of the industry and the ways in which many have been taken advantage of in pursuit of their careers. 

Clocking in at some 600 or so pages, Great Circle is a relatively long novel, but it doesn’t feel like it.  I was completely caught up in Marian’s life, and desperate to understand what happened to her.  Hadley’s tale wasn’t as gripping for me personally, but it certainly adds a little something extra to the narrative.  I think that it’s a counterpoint to Marian’s constant effort to break the mould – although Hadley doesn’t have it easy either – and it’s interesting to see another perspective on Marian’s life as we learn more about her ourselves.  Shipstead also captures some wonderful detail around the earliest flights, and particularly the earliest female aviators who provide such inspiration.  It’s a wonderful novel to lose yourself in, and while it’s not always an easy read, I think that it imparts a wonderful sense of what can be achieved against the odds. 

Published by Doubleday, Great Circle is available now in hardback, eBook, and audio formats. 

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