Maggie Shipstead || Great Circle

Shortlist 2021

Shipstead has written an ambitious novel. One in which she couples the lives of two women, in the same time elaborating on the history of female aviation. Main character Marian Graves is one of the pioneering women who made a career in aviation possible for others. Hadley Baxter the actress who plays Maggie in the movie about her life.

Let’s be clear about the one thing I find fault with in in this novel. At a certain point I really wondered to what purpose the character of Hadley had been added. The novel is about Marian quite obviously, her character given a world more of attention and depth. Hadley kind of being left with the left-overs, character-wise and attention-wise. Shipstead presents Marian as a rounded character, her life and character develop with each page.

Hadley on the other hand gets stuck with the cliché of a young actress facing prejudice against her good looks, getting herself in trouble all the time with alcohol and reckless sex. Marian’s part is her ticket to the movie world, her chance to show she is a serious actress. Coming in second place in the novel her character lacks depth. Only at the very end does it become clear why Shipstead had her on board at all. To be honest, it was kind of a trick.

On the positive side, Shipstead has created a formidable character in the person of Marian Graves. In the hefty Great Circle we get to know her from cradle to grave. Raised by her uncle, painter and gambler, living an isolated life with her twin Jamie and neighbour Caleb, finding out at a young age that there is only one thing she wants to do: fly! More importantly, being prepared to set aside a lot in order to achieve that goal. It is a passion she ultimately pays for with her life (no spoiler there, her death is revealed straight at the start of the novel).

Marian offers Shipstead the opportunity to introduce an important theme to the story: the history of female aviators. Through Marian we get to know the hardships they had to endure in order to be taken seriously, grasping their chances in World War Two, being pushed aside by men once more when the war ended. Having one desire only: to take of in an airplane. That passion is paramount in Great Circle, it determines Marian’s life and that of many other female aviators.

Shipstead focuses on Marian and offers us Hadley on the side. As a result the reader is confronted with many people and many situations in Great Circle. It is a credit to Shipstead she manages to steer clear from hick-ups and presents us with a novel in which everything neatly finds a place. The clear structure helps. Marian’s life is presented almost chronologically; her chapters are headed by straightforward information on time and place. Hadley’s time zone is restricted to a few years. Her chapters are headed by creative titles.

An ambitious novel. And I have to admit, Shipstead succeeded pretty good in keeping me with her. I was interested from the start, kept on reading. Marian’s interesting life is partly responsible, let’s not forget Shipstead’s clear structure and her fluent style of writing. It prevents from stranding the novel in too much complexity but having it deliver again and again. Great Circle is one of those novels that leaves you feeling pretty rewarded.

About booksandliliane

I am an avid reader and love to share my love for literature. I have my own opinion on books that have been shortlisted, laureated by critics or are pushed on us by bookstores. I will try and explain why I like or do not like a book. Hopefully influencing you in your choice of books to read.
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