Maggie Shipstead's Great Circle Is The Literary Escape of Summer 2021

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Photo credit: Spiral Descent (detail) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Images
Photo credit: Spiral Descent (detail) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London / Bridgeman Images

The pleasures of being a books editor are many. Each day is like Christmas, with deliveries from publishers arriving at my office—or now, my doorstep at home—on a near hourly basis. Being that books have been some of my steadiest and most coveted companions from the time I was a little girl, it's a surprise—even to me—that my sense of anticipation every time I open a new one has never diminished. Are you the one?


Maggie Shipstead's sumptuous epic, Great Circle (Knopf, May 4) is the one. I brought it with me to Key West on my first vacation since the Covid lockdown began in March 2020, along with about eight other options—just in case. I'd really liked Shipstead's previous novels, Seating Arrangements (2012) and Astonish Me (2014). But each of those were contemporary novels, modestly proportioned in contrast to her latest—a work of historical fiction that clocks in at 589 pages.

I brought the backup reads in case Great Circle fizzled in the middle, but no alternates were needed. By the first lines, I was all in: "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."

Insert deep, satisfied sigh.

We are first introduced to protagonist Marian Graves as an infant, along with her twin brother, Jamie, on a sinking ocean liner their father is captain of. As their mother is nowhere to be found, their father must choose whether to hand his babies over to strangers in a lifeboat and stay with his ship, or break all the rules and board the lifeboat with them. That decision forever alters all their lives.

Marian and Jamie are left in the wilds of Montana to be cared for by an eccentric, alcoholic uncle who gambles away every spare penny. But whatever hardships Marian suffers over the course of the next years, what gets her through is her dream of becoming an aviator. This is in the early part of the 20th century, when such dreams for women were seen as sheer fantasy. But Marian is determined, fearless, wild, and her first flying lesson is a liberation. Soon, she is a pilot for a bootlegger who's also her lover, piloting small planes filled with contraband into remote territories, at times through rough weather that would have grounded a more cautious pilot. The risks thrill her.

The novel has a radical streak. Marian is not of the modern era, yet she evolves into a character who would today be referred to as gender-fluid. She loves women and men, and is often mistaken for a man, with her choppy short hair and masculine dress. Marian cares nothing for what society thinks of her.

Shipstead also experiments with point-of-view and timelines. She expertly moves from narrator to narrator and even into the 21st century to a plot involving Hadley, a famous young actress whose affair with a man not her co-star/boyfriend alienates her fans and producers. The scandal almost costs her career, until she is offered the starring role in an indie about an aviator named...Marian Graves.

The most exhilarating sections of the novel, though, occur when Marian is aloft, circumnavigating the globe over the North and South Poles, attempting to fulfill her lifelong goal of achieving what no pilot has before. She and her lone navigator fly that plane as if fleeing the world itself. They are exuberant, reckless, unstoppable—and always on the edge of mortal fear. But that fear fuels them, and makes them feel more awake than ever before.

What does the title Great Circle refer to? Yes, it's about the earth's shape and a pilot's path. But it's also about how each life—big, small, well-known, anonymous—is both a blip on a night sky and capable of legacy. One aha moment can redirect everything. What Maggie Shipstead has done with this book is deliver a series of ahas, of sweet, provocative points of contemplation that make the reader feel as alive as Marian did in that plane.

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