2020-21 was a year for reflection and appreciation of the things in our midst; a year without travel; a global, public grounding. Adventurer Marian Graves of Maggie Shipstead’s exceptional novel Great Circle would have writhed under such limitations.
Marian is built for flight and only truly happy when she’s in the air. After she witnesses two stunt pilots flying over her Missoula home in 1927, she is determined to become a pilot herself. Her desire to be airborne is almost strong enough to lift her; however, to really fly, she has to pursue and withstand an abusive relationship with a gangster who gives her the necessary training and machinery for flight in exchange for submission and pantomimed domesticity.
Marian’s story is engrossing, but if Great Circle were only her chronicle, it would not be the richly-layered, riveting narrative that it is. Instead, Great Circle is densely populated by similarly fascinating characters and episodes, spanning as far back as 1909 and as far forward as the 21st century, taking us to masterfully described national and global destinations and points in history.
Marian’s haunting origin story involves her father, the taciturn captain Addison Graves; her mother, the louche and mysterious Annabel; the doomed ship Josephina Eterna; a secret cache of weapons; and so much more. After she and her twin brother Jamie narrowly escape going down with the Josephina, they land in Missoula, Montana, with their uncle, a benevolent drunk who paints and gambles his life away.
Orphaned, the children of Addison and Annabel essentially raise themselves into different incarnations of American ideals: Marian, the barrier-breaking female pilot, and Jamie, the brooding drifter and painter who captures emotion, nature, and history in art. Both children suffer from a kind of unassuageable wanderlust, never able to “settle down” and always in search of the next vast landscape.
In parallel, the 21st century story of Hadley Baxter of Hollywood fame and fortune thrums along like a steady tailwind as Hadley attempts to resuscitate her career by playing Marian Graves in a film based on a mostly whitewashed story of Marian’s life. Shipstead has a gift for description and dialogue that brings us immediately into the warmth and complexity of not only Hollywood dynamics, homes, and productions, but also into the frozen landscapes of the poles, the banality of solitude, and the physical discomfort of long-distance flight.
Great Circle is without question one of the best books I have read in a very long time. I think about it constantly – not only about the characters and plot, but also about the deep, eternal questions it raises about where we find home, and how we can’t help but pursue self-expression that convinces us of our value and purpose on the great circle we inhabit.