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Separated by decades, two women fly in parallel

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.
“I thought I would believe I’d seen the world, but there is too much of the world and too little of life.”

Maybe you might have noticed (or perhaps you did not) that I’m working my way through the Booker Prize shortlist and The Women’s Prize for fiction. So, it is no surprise that Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead has come up. And Great Circle is an impressive feat of a novel. اضافة اعلان

An undated photo of Maggie Shipstead. (Photo: Twitter) 

The novel flies through time and place as a valiant piece of historical fiction. And piloting Shipstead’s success are the headstrong, gallant, and complex heroines who bring to the forefront the never-ending omnipresent constraints present in their lives, whether during US prohibition, World War II in Britain, or present-day Los Angeles.

Great Circle centers on the fictional “lady pilot” Marian Graves, an accomplished aviator whose obsession with flying since childhood never falters. Marian disappears while trying to fly from the north pole to the south pole. However, while we grow with Marian, Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood star drowning in controversy and scandal, is introduced in parallel.

Hadley is attempting to salvage her career by making a film about Marian. Yet their stories, or more specifically, their felt losses, lead Hadley to delve deeper into the mystery surrounding the disappeared aviator. Hadley is the secondary heroine only because, despite their lives being weaved together throughout the novel, much of the book is focused on Marian. At points, this great focus on Marian became slightly frustrating. Getting close to Hadley was notably harder than getting close to Marian and many other characters in the novel.

Shipstead’s acknowledgments reveal the first manuscript was over 1,000 pages long, and now standing at around 608 pages, I ponder if Hadley was where the large cuts appeared.

Despite this, the vividness and intricacies of details that Shipstead used to introduce us to Marian and other characters were captivating. Shipstead masterfully threads memorable characters together and continues to intersect their paths even in death, reverberating years later. It was easy to imagine Shipstead as having an office covered in sticky notes with arrows or strings connecting everyone in a manner that allowed her to remember.

But that was not quite the technique.

In a Q&A with the Booker Prize, she revealed how she is “sadly incapable of planning my books. I wish I could, but instead, I just have to leap and then hope I’m able to resolve all the problems I create.” And in showing us how we have the power to alter the lives of those around us, while also making a mark on those we never even meet, Shipstead resolves the problems of such an undertaking.

Although the shallowness to which Hadley features was harder to love in comparison to the depth of Marian, both Marian and Hadley, women separated by many decades, allow Shipstead to present context and commentary on the restrictions of patriarchal expectations and the confinement of male-dominated ideals. The confinements illuminate the novel, and the struggles immerse readers into a deeper cultural understanding.

At points, Shipstead’s deep descriptions can leave one feeling as though the novel is moving a little too slow in pace. And yet, each chapter’s finish leaves you with the need to know more. Maybe that is the lesson Shipstead wants to leave the reader with; we can never truly know anything, at least not completely. And while that might be true for people, Shipstead’s knowledge and research in the field are an obvious result of enormous effort into mastering the history of “lady pilots”. It is in this layer of uncomfortable honesty and powerful accuracy ­— or thorough research —  that makes the novel, at points, surprisingly emotional.

I’m constantly looking for books in which female characters are not simplified or made to feel artificial. Marian ducks away from the superficiality in a way that is not only original but also real. Marian’s complexities and the tenderness with which Shipstead writes of her struggles to find freedom are liberating.

This is an impressive book of sacrifice, passion, and adventure that you should be packing with you for any getaways this summer.

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