Great Circle: A novel

Image of Great Circle: A novel
Release Date: 
May 4, 2021
Reviewed by: 

This book is a good example of how packaging and promotion can hit or miss with an audience.

Depending on when you hear about a novel, via what medium; and whether you can preview its pages in bookstore browsing or online peek-a-boos, and what customer and professional reviews happen to be posted at that time; plus how the book is physically put together (cover, title, jacket blurb), you can end up with a story you love or one that surprises you the wrong way.

In the case of pre-press Great Circle, here’s the catchline that was available when the title was selected for this review:

“An unforgettable story of a daredevil female aviator determined to chart her own course in life, at any cost—Great Circle spans Prohibition-era Montana, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, New Zealand, wartime London, and modern-day Los Angeles.”

From this it’s easy to infer the story will be about one of the early women pilots who worked hard and sacrificed much to fly, and her adventures covering wide ground. Reasonable to expect action and drama, driven by character.

The balance of the sell blurb:

“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. Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is a monumental work of art, and a tremendous leap forward for the prodigiously gifted Maggie Shipstead.”

And from this it’s easy to infer that the story will feature Marian the pilot, with a parallel story about Hadley the actress in another timeline, focusing on how their personalities and destinies intersect, with lots of location color in lots of juicy detail.

Well, you’ll get that in the book, but it’s buried under the juicy details. So many of them, it seems the entire novel is about juicy details, including juicy body parts.

If you could cut the tome by half, you’d find Marian’s and Hadley’s parallel stories clearly defined. Unfortunately, both women’s profiles are so heavily padded by so many other people’s stories it’s hard to keep track of the central characters.

The quantity of those extra stories creates a quality divide between reader tastes and expectations. Depending on which side of the divide you stand, you’ll find either a magnificent literary saga or an extremely disappointing aviation adventure novel.

As a literary saga, Great Circle is woven around all the factors that compel Marian to take her aviation journey in 1950. The narrative opens with an excerpt from her journal of the flight, augmented by a map of the planned circumpolar route.

But before anyone can whisper “airplane,” the narrative switches back in time to the people and forces that led to Marian’s birth, her odd and painful formative years, and her early adulthood—including the backstories of her ancestors, relatives, lovers, spouse, employers, few friends, and assorted secondary characters.

Interspersed among the backstories is the contemporary tale of Hadley, whose life is almost as miserable as Marian’s, albeit at the other end of the financial and public spectrums. It soon becomes apparent that these women share an alienation that forms their connection across time, and one will find an epiphany through the other.

Marian’s introduction to flight comes late and is repeatedly thwarted. About two-thirds of the way through the novel she at last gets airborne and escapes her shackles. She becomes a bush pilot in Alaska, which in turn qualifies her to fly in the women’s ferry service during World War II. The experience makes her capable of flying anything, anywhere, in any conditions. By then she is a bitter loner searching for something she can’t find, with a trail of relationship wreckage in her wake.

Meanwhile, Hadley is playing the lead role in Marian’s story in a film about her life, which was derived from a book written by someone else, which was derived from Marian’s journal of her ill-fated flight.

In both women’s stories, almost every character, scene, and situation is glum, caustic, or tragic. The majority of the characters are victims of emotional abuse, physical abuse—including marital rape—or situational deprivation, and suffer from disillusionment or guilt, often both. As well, there’s more sex in these pages than the average hot romance. Whether solo, hetero, homo, or bi, the encounters are mostly sad and soulless save for a few that give little sparks of hope for love.

Approaching the book from the aviation adventure side, one would expect the story to focus on Marian’s destiny of “circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles”—and to roll right into it, boldly and with purpose. Then the story would flash back to, and/or interweave, the subplots. But the idea of the trip does not come onstage in Marian’s own mind until page 510. She does not take off until page 524, and the journey is over by page 561.

If you add in all the mentions of this trip scattered throughout the book, it comes to loosely 15 percent of the story. Pretty much opposite of what one would expect from an aviation adventure novel.

To summarize: If you relish deep diving into myriad characters, down to their most private mental, emotional, and physical parts; and you love rich evocation of other places and periods; and you have the mental facility and patience to follow nonsequential time jumps across eras—with a little adventure thrown in for spice—then this book will satisfy your taste in spades. It’s a reading experience sure to invigorate book club discussions and maybe win awards.

If, conversely, you’re looking for a trip-around-the-world-in-an-airplane story, heightened by two women spiritually connected through time, and given depth by supporting characters, then you’re opening the wrong book.

What readers on both sides of the divide will find is excellent writing, character plausibility, and a surprise ending. The question is what kind of journey you prefer to take in 600 tightly packed pages.