Review: Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead
WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS SLIGHTLY SPOILERY. I don't give away the exact details of the ending, and I reveal the big emotional climax, but I do hint pretty heavily at things. I think you can still enjoy the book even if you do have an idea of what happens, but if you want to go in completely unspoiled and enjoy this book in all its splendour, then stop reading now. Just know that this is one of the best books I have ever read in my life and you should absolutely skive off work for the next week so you can read it immediately. When I finished it, I didn't want to read any other book ever so I could just have this in my head forever. And coming from me that is HIGH FUCKING PRAISE indeed.
Okay, you've been warned. Carry on at your own risk.
This book is just simply phenomenal. Everything about it worked absolutely perfectly for me: the beautiful, clear writing that drops metaphors on you out of the blue and just leave you absolutely floored with their beauty; the complicated, complex, nuanced characters that never quite do what they should or what you expect but that you can't help but root for anyway, even as they tear each other apart; the inch-perfect pacing; the epic, encompassing nature of the story and the ambiguity of its reality and its ending; how the story itself really makes you feel the scale of it. There's a chapter near the end of the book where Jamie Graves, one of the central characters, says he wants to paint the concept of infinite space and the impossibility of understanding it, and I think that's what Maggie Shipstead is trying to do here as well - make us feel simultaneously the importance of the book while reminding us that we barely exist in the concept of infinite space itself.
I cannot emphasise enough how perfect the writing is - not a single word out of place, every secondary character and plotline fitting in to what the story needs them to be, nothing taking up too much or not enough space or time, every single theme explored exactly the right amount and brought to exactly the right concluding point.
Very basically, this is the story of Marian Graves, a little-known pilot who sets out to circumnavigate the globe by flying over both poles after World War II, and the scope of her life: the childhood experiences and family history that made her who she is, and how her personality solidified in her adolescence and early adulthood. The other central characters are Jamie Graves, her twin brother, and their childhood friend Caleb Biterroot. The blurb on the back of the book says it's a dual timeline story along with that of Hadley Baxter, the Hollywood actress cast to play Marian in a biopic in 2014, but Hadley's story is really more to put Marian's story in perspective, and give it the overlapping sense of mattering both in her own time and in Hadley's - Marian is the real star of the show. And, oh boy, is she a great main character.
She is deeply, deeply flawed, and is profoundly stubborn and selfish, and reacts in ways that make very little sense, and can sometimes treat the people around her who love her with appalling callousness - but the people who love her let her get away with it, and very rarely call her to account, because they love her. I think that was one of the stronger points of the novel, that Marian only ever faces the consequences of how she treats people that she sets for herself, and the only moment that she grows as a person is when she assumes those consequences. And I also loved the way Marian was allowed to have experiences that shaped her as an adult but that she didn't grow from, that she didn't have a redemptive hero's arc from. Those fit in really well with Hadley's chapters, how Hadley was stuck in a self-destructive spiral that she could recognise but also couldn't quite find the way to break free from. It felt truer to life and truer to the complexities of the characters and the novel than a neater, happier arc.
Shipstead also treats the abusive relationship Marian finds herself in as a teenager with compassion and empathy and heart: while Barclay, Marian's abusive husband, is very clearly the villain, Marian is never at any point a helpless victim or a trope; and her lack of willingness to leave him, coupled with her personality flaw that she refuses to owe him for the fact that he paid for her plane and flight lessons, makes those chapters almost unbearably tense and difficult to read.
The research is impeccably done as well, and woven into the narrative in such careful, beautiful ways that add depth and weight and realism to the story without ever feeling overblown or overdone or overwrought. Maggie Shipstead's writing of atmosphere is also superb: every time Marian takes off in a plane, I had the same physiological reactions she was having. I felt like I was taking off with her, and that is hard to do in what is essentially a written medium that relies on the reader's own imagination.
And oh my word were the emotional climaxes just perfectly dosed. I actually sobbed when Jamie died, since it seemed to come from nowhere after he'd already survived so much. The fact that Ruth's death was written as a throwaway comment, after her weight in the second third of the plot, just felt like the exact gut punch it was meant to be, as both a reminder of how terrible Marian could be and how awful the war actually was; Trout dying so soon after Marian had finally made peace with his role in her life... ugh. All of it. Just ugh.
Look, I could write about how much I loved this book and how perfect I found it for hours, but really, all I have to say is this: it really struck a chord with me and I adored every single second I spent with it, even as it was putting me through the emotional wringer. It's an absolute shoo-in for my top 20 of 2021 list, and it's going straight into my capsule collection bookshelf. I love it so much. I am blown away by the craft of this author and I can't wait for my reread. Please read this book and please give it all of the awards.
I'm off to go cry about how much I adored this book some more.
Please read it. But also, I'm not lending anyone my copy, because I want this book to be mine forever and ever and ever. I love it so much.