This is one of those epic 600-page novels I don’t pick up very often and in this case, I couldn’t put it down. GREAT CIRCLE begins in dramatic fashion early in the twentieth century when Maggie and Jamie Graves, infant twins, are rescued from a sinking ocean liner by their father, the ship’s captain.
The father, dubbed Captain Cowardice, is sentenced to prison for not going down with the ship, but the twins survive and grow up in rural Montana with their uncle, an alcoholic and artist.
Marian is the lead of the novel. As a child, she wanders in nature with her brother and their almost-feral friend Caleb, and at one point she witnesses an airplane flying overhead, low enough to almost buzz her. From that moment on she is compelled to become a pilot, eventually attempting an around-the-world flight a la Amelia Earhart, except Marian’s flight is intended to cross the globe longitudinally, over both the north and south poles.
To become a pilot, Marian accepts the financial assistance and marriage proposal of a wealthy, controlling bootlegger she doesn’t love, aptly named Barclay Macqueen. He’s no good, but she learns to fly and she transports whiskey from Canada to the US and sneaks off on daring flights of her own when she can.
Brother Jamie becomes an artist, like his uncle, and faces his own doomed love affairs. They eventually both contribute to the World War II effort, she as a transporter of new planes from factory to airfields, he as a combat artist depicting the experience of war (who knew such a role existed?).
Juxtaposed over the historical story is the contemporary story of Hadley Baxter, a young actress who became a movie star thanks to luck and timing, proceeds to wreck her reputation, and then is tapped to play Marian Graves in a film about the aviator’s life.
Hadley’s story, which is a small percentage of the novel, and her character—spoiled, impulsive, floundering—the exact opposite of the driven Marian—don’t work as well, although Shipstead is such a skilled writer and storyteller that she deftly entwines the stories and brings them together.
A powerful novel is one that puts in its world and compels you to stay there. That’s exactly what GREAT CIRCLE does. Since I finished reading the book, I look up every time I hear a plane. I wonder what it would be like to fly one of those things. I almost want to try.