GREAT CIRCLE – Maggie Shipstead

“I was born to be a wanderer.”

Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (Alfred A. Knopf 2021) is likely my pick for the 2021 Booker Prize.  (And it has nothing to do with the fact a coonhound makes an appearance.)  I love the uniqueness of Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This and it’s still my dark horse favorite, but Shipstead’s epic historical saga is damn near perfect once you get to about page 73.  There were early sections that gave me pause, glitches in the storytelling that just missed the mark or overshot it, but when she gets off the ground… chef’s kiss.  This is what historical literary fiction should look like.

Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their uncle in Montana after nearly being lost at sea.  Their father, a ship’s captain, is arrested and convicted of criminal negligence after abandoning the ship in order to save the twins.  Their mother, a lost soul already, plunged into the depths in the hopes of a better life or at least a better death.  The twins grow wild in Montana, left largely to their own devices by their artistic uncle who can’t hold his liquor or his money.  Marian is bold, brave and rash.  Jamie is softer with a quieter bravery.  Marian is bitten by the flying bug and starts saving money for lessons.  She disguises herself as a boy and begins making deliveries for the local bakery.  As this is during the time of prohibition, her deliveries aren’t exactly always legal.  She saves her money and bides her time.  While working as a delivery boy, she catches the eye of Barclay Macqueen, a powerful and dangerous bootlegger who isn’t accustomed to being told no.  She makes her deals with the devil and begins taking flight lessons.

Marian is most at home in the skies and as much as she grows to hate Barclay, that’s the gift he’s given her.  When war breaks out, she goes to London to fly with the ATA.  Jamie joins as a war artist, a tortured role for the peaceful artist.  After the war, Marian is determined to circumnavigate the globe – the mission funded by the widow of her father’s former business partner.  The widow is trying to right some wrongs – things can come full circle, right?

The novel easily slips from Marian and the early 1900s to Hadley Baxter, a young actress tapped to play Marian in an upcoming low budget film based on Marian’s final flight and subsequent disappearance.  In this role, Hadley learns a bit about truth in storytelling, about how some things just aren’t meant to be known, how there isn’t always a clear right or a clear wrong, and how we can rewrite our narratives. 

From New York to Montana to Alaska to London to California, this novel travels the globe and spans a century.  Starting with the waters and ending in the skies, Great Circle is magnificent. 

**I personally do not do trigger/content warnings, but for those who do, please read some other reviews prior to picking up this novel.

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