A novel with more than 600 pages is daunting, but Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” (Knopf) actually left me wanting more. Spanning more than 100 years, this book connects the astonishing lives of a historic female aviator, and a Hollywood rebel trying to restart her career. It includes celebrity scandal, acts of wartime courage and freedom’s eternal promise, and it’s so entertaining and informative that the ending seems to come too soon.
Marian Graves is a pilot who grew up in Montana in the early part of the 20th century. She spent most of her life dreaming of flying a complete circle around the Earth, pole to pole. In 1950, she reached Antarctica and was about to embark onwards to New Zealand. The plane never arrived; Marian vanished, Earhart-style, in the South Pacific.
I was hooked from the beginning when Marian says, “I was born to be a wanderer. I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave. Some birds fly until they die. I have made a promise to myself: My last descent won’t be the tumbling, helpless kind but sharp gannet plunge – a dive with intent, aimed at something deep in the sea.” And the story starts when Marian and her twin brother, Jamie, are rescued as babies from their father’s ship (he’s the captain) as it sinks in a spectacular Titanic-style. Their mother is nowhere to be seen. Taken in by their alcoholic uncle, they are raised in rural Montana, where they run free in nature, storming through forests and raging rivers, skipping school and sleeping outdoors. It’s an idyllic scene, described with wonderful detail by the author.
When the twins are 12, a pair of aviators swoop into town and the differences between Marian and her brother become obvious. Jamie, a shy, sensitive kid, is fated to stay close to the earth but Marian wants only one thing – to fly as she witnesses a biplane roar over her head, “as abrupt and magnificent as an announcing angel.” She is fascinated by its power to “carry people elsewhere.”
Marian’s obsession with planes briefly ties her to a brute of a husband, a wealthy bootlegger who pays for the teenage Marian’s flying lessons as a way of enslaving her to him. He repeatedly rapes her in order to force her into getting pregnant. Marian eventually takes flight and pursues her dream of flying, transporting illegal whisky over the Canadian border and later flying for the British Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. Her greatest ambition remains to circumnavigate the globe by air. Unfortunately, she encounters just about every obstacle that hounded women in the early 20th century. The worst of these is the way men always want to make allowances for her. Being treated gently infuriates her and drives her on to prove herself in the male-dominated world of flying.
Marian’s story is interspersed with an impressive array of historical research which is seamlessly integrated. More ambitiously, however, the author weaves in a whole other novel set in the present day. This is a boisterous tale of sex and drugs and sushi rolls set in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Hadley Baxter is a young actress who stars in a Twilight-style series of films alongside her famous boyfriend, rapidly gaining extreme wealth and intense celebrity. She is stalked,
in person and online, by obsessive fans who ridicule her for betraying their cherished franchise when her love life becomes controversial. These fun chapters give a gossipy insider account of the movie industry, from its nasty #metoo movement to its fixation with diets, beauty and the gym. When Hadley is cast as Marian in the Oscar-bait film, we see that the pressures on the two women, separated by a century but bonded in their treatment by men in power, are very similar.
This is a tremendously well-written book, epic in spirit and scope, leaping across continents and through time. The cast is huge, from Marian’s ghost-like mother, Annabel, badly abused as a child and later stunned by maternal terror at the birth of Marian and Jamie, to the whores in a brothel to whom a young Marian delivers whisky during prohibition. But, the characters are powerful, and their choices, even the extraordinary ones, make sense within their worlds. Shipstead’s sentences are radiant, her metaphors exact: a luxury steamship crossing the North Atlantic at night is “a jeweled brooch on black satin;” in the present day, Hadley looks down from a Hollywood hillside mansion at “the big flat circuit board of Los Angeles planing off into the pale haze.”
Shipstead has written two previous successful novels: “Seating Arrangements,” an award-winning New York Times bestseller, and “Astonish Me.” She apparently was traveling between her first and second release, figuring out what to work on next, when she got the idea for “Great Circle.” It took her seven years to complete but thankfully she did. It’s a great read and glowing tribute to women who push the boundaries of their life, breaking the ties of their place in history to soar higher and faster than others; and the price they pay to live so fast.