Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.
The first 200 pages of this novel are nothing short of brilliant, addictive reading and had me utterly hooked. The scene is set with the story of Marian’s parents’ coincidental meeting aboard a cruise ship in 1914 and their subsequent fleeting affair which results in twin pregnancy. Marian’s mother is aloof and cold, a gruesome backstory reveals why. When tragedy strikes – think Titanic with a twist – Marian and her twin brother Jamie are placed with their uncle in Missoula, Montana. The upbringing amongst the wilderness of Montana is a far cry from what should have been; their mother hailed from a well-to-do New York family.
When Marian first sees an airplane at the age of 14, a life-long passion is ignited. Getting to actually fly one, however, turns out to come at a very high personal cost, but Marian will stop at nothing, and eventually becomes a celebrated female pilot on a mission to circumnavigate the globe.
Parallel to Marian’s story is the contemporary story of Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood super-starlet who has just lost her role in a series of Game of Throne-esque fame following a controversial affair. Hadley is adrift, abandoned by agents and film producers upset by her monumental mistake. That is, until she stumbles upon the manuscript of a film based on Marian’s life. A life which has striking similarities to her own. Hadley is also an orphan, her parents having been killed in a plane crash, and raised by an uncle.
So far, so very good.
The problem sets in after said first 200 pages. It’s almost as if Shipstead loses steam, gets lost. The book essentially becomes one of an endless line of romantic relationships. That in itself doesn’t have to be a problem, the issue is that none of them engaged me. The spark of the initial part is lost, the characters lack depth, Shipstead starts listing events. Is she bored by her own writing?
We’re in a holding pattern for about 300 pages, during which I did something I rarely do, started to skim read. Normally, I would have stopped reading and you wouldn’t have read about the book on this blog, but, having invested a substantial amount of time and with the memory of Shipstead’s brilliant start, I kept soldering on. There was a reward at the end. Over the last 100 pages Shipstead’s returns to form as she describes the drama and the landscape of the final part of Marian’s around the world flight in the most beautiful prose. Too bad about the middle.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is published by Doubleday, 608 pages.