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Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle, was the first to land in my basket, followed by The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers.

Browsing the shelves of the Hay Bookshop at Hay Festival this year was a test of willpower. I could have bought dozens of books, but we were at the start of a ten-day road trip and half a dozen books were not on the essentials list.

Synopsis of Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

The novel follows the lives of two women separated by half a century. The first, Marian Graves, was rescued as a baby, along with her twin brother, from a sinking ship, by her Captain father. Subsequently imprisoned for abandoning his post and dubbed Captain Cowardice by the press, he disappears from Marian’s life.

Sent to live with their uncle, Marian and her brother grow up wild.

One day, Marian meets The Flying Brayfogles, and becomes obsessed with learning to fly a plane. We follow her and her brother through their chaotic childhood during the prohibition years, and into adulthood. Now a qualified and skilled pilot, Marian fights to maintain her freedom in a world where she’s expected to marry, have a child and ‘settle down’.

Determined to fulfil a lifelong ambition, Marian sets out to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole, she disappears over Antarctica and never returns.

Very little is known about the enigmatic and private Marian, and her name slips into obscurity.

Fifty years later Hollywood ‘wild child’, Hadley Baxter, on the brink of self-destruction, takes on the role of Marian in a new movie which seeks to bring her achievements back into the limelight. During her preparation for the role, Hadley uncovers fresh and compelling light on Marian, and what happened to her.

My Review

The Great Circle referred to in Maggie’s novel, refers to the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere, such as the distance between the North and South Poles. On a metaphoric level, life can be described as a great circle, and within each life are an infinite number of great circles.

Maggie’s novel begins with the spotlight on Hadley Baxter who inhabits an alien (to most people) world of fame, glamour, and hedonistic lifestyles constantly under the microscope of public scrutiny.

Although engaging and fascinating, it’s when the spotlight turned to Marian that the novel really began to hold my attention. Growing up in prohibition America, this is a world that is equally alien given that, in terms of history, it’s frighteningly recent.

Following the exploits of Marian as she tries to fund her dream of becoming a pilot and own her own plane, we accompany her from whore houses and bootleggers, into the Great War, and the blitz and glitz of war-torn London.

Much of the narrative focusses on flying and at times, I found myself glossing over the technical terms and the nuances of manoeuvres.

If you’re a pilot or a would-be pilot, you’ll no doubt linger over those sections.

Engaging throughout, despite its meaty 673 pages, this is a thought-provoking, vivid image of two women’s struggles to balance the pursuit of ambition with the journey to self-fulfilment.

The Great Circle was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

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