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Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Great Circle is a sweeping saga that take you from Prohibition-era Montana to Modern day Hollywood that will capture you from the first moment.


Marian Graves starts her life by surviving the sinking of an ocean liner that her father captains. After his arrest, she and her twin brother, Jamie, go to live with their artist Uncle in Montana where Marian begins her lifelong love affair with flying. In a time when women were not granted the freedom to live their lives, Marian carves out an existence for herself that is completely her own. Years later, Hadley Baxter, is cast to play Marian after an affair disrupts her life. She becomes enthralled with the mystery of Marian and transforms her own life through the character.

As always, I want to put a disclaimer that this book touches on some themes of death, suicide, sexuality, abuse, and some uncomfortable sexual content. None of these will be touched on in any detail in this review, but I want to include a warning before you pick up the book.


I love a good saga of a book, some of my favorite books are big tomes that immediately grab you and don't let go until the very end. Shipstead takes a rather traditional story telling device and interjects it with unexpected interjections and shifts in perspective. For some readers, these changes are unwelcome and make this book one that not everyone is going to love. I would compare it to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt in that sense, you either love the book or you hate it. You don't find many people in a middle zone about it which is how I think that Great Circle is likely to be received by the public.


I received this book as part of my Parnassus First Editions Club and was immediately intrigued by the subject of female aviators and a rich time period in United States history. As young girl, I was utterly fascinated by Amelia Earhart and her mysterious disappearance. There is something so enduringly fascinating about the men and women of the early flying years - the risks they took, the friends they lost, and the sacrifices they made to make their dreams come true. Shipstead beautifully taps into all of these feelings to create Marian Graves and her modern counterpoint, Hadley Baxter.




As I mentioned, one of the things that will make this a tough read is the way that the timeline progresses in the novel. It's non-linear at times and randomly jumps to different points of view in certain spots. The shifting points of view is particularly true of the beginning of the book as you start with the jumbled views of the Graves parents and don't actually spend much time with the central protagonists until farther into the book. Personally, I just accepted this as it was and kept moving forward. Occasionally, I would have to double check what time or person that I was following but it never took me out of the story. Even if you were only with a perspective for a short time, Shipstead's writing is so engrossing and her characterizations so complete that you never felt as though you were wasting time in a view.


"The world unfurls and unfurls, and there is always more. A line, a circle, is insufficient. I look forward, and there is the horizon. I look back. Horizon. What's past is lost. I am already lost to my future." - Great Circle

The story itself is astounding, going from the late 1800s through the modern day. Shipstead captures the turbulence of the early twentieth century beautifully. I particularly thought the section featuring the Second World War was handled wonderfully as you could feel the challenges of the time through the pages. The modern storyline with Hadley is really interesting, but it is the one space in which Shipstead leans towards the love triangle trope in a way that feels typical. That being said, I think that some of those pieces were essential for Hadley to come full-circle as a character.


If I gave out stars, there is no doubt that this would deserve 5. I already have Shipstead's other two novels on hold at our local library and cannot wait to read them. It feels so rare to be completely engrossed with a novel and I have no doubt that this will end up on my top 10 list of reads for the year.


If you've read the book, what did you think?


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