I have to admit that sometimes I find that the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize disappointing, But, this time – 2021 – I found one that’s delightful. Great Circle is the third novel from Maggie Shipstead, whose two previous novels were very well received. Ms Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stamford. Judging by her website, she is very well travelled, having completed numerous assignments for Conde Naste Travel. This doubtless came in handy, as the locations in Great Circle include Hollywood, New York, the North Atlantic, Hawaii, Alaska, South Africa, New Zealand, Sweden, Missoula Montana, Seattle, Antarctica, and various locations in England.
Interestingly, the book does not appear to be based on a real-life event. I cannot find any record of ‘the first polar great circle flight – by man or woman. In fact Ms Shipstead says that the original inspiration for the novel was seeing a statue of Jean Batten in Auckland, New Zealand. Batten was the first woman to fly solo from England to New Zealand. Ms Shipstead appears to have selected the DC3 as being the first affordable, non-military aircraft which. with the technology available in 1950, could have been able to make the flight.
There are two protagonists in this story: Marian Graves, a driven, thrill-seeking woman who is in love with flying, and Hadley Baxter, a successful but selfish and amoral Hollywood star. Marian and her twin brother are rescued from a sinking passenger liner in the North Atlantic by their father, a widower, who is sent to prison for abandoning his ship. The twins are raised in Missoula, Montana by a neglectful, ne’er, do well uncle during the Great Depression. Marian becomes enchanted by barnstorming pilots and at the age of fourteen learns to fly. She becomes a bush pilot, flying alcohol from Canada to the States during Prohibition. Her financial sponsor becomes her domineering husband, but she breaks free, and travels to England where she joins a group of female pilots who ferry war planes from place to place. She then decides to pioneer a polar great circle route in an airplane. The records seemed to indicate that her aircraft, the Peregrine, went down somewhere between Antarctica and New Zealand.
Hadley Baxter, who had had a long run in a popular romantic series, is persuaded to play Marian in a forthcoming film about her life. She becomes fascinated by Marian’s story, and begins to investigate it. This leads to her finding out what actually happened to Marian.
This story is like a jigsaw puzzle whose many colourful pieces finally fit neatly into place. There are numerous supporting characters, all of whom are unique, well drawn and who build our interest in the story and help define the protagonists. Clearly, the author has done her research. The many details of aircraft, flying, film-making, painting, and the numerous out-of-the-way places are clear and credible. Underlying the fabric of the story is the image of a circle – completed or broken – as it can be applied to human life.
The only problem I have with the book is the character of Hadley Baxter, who seems too superficial and self-absorbed to play Marian Graves. In a way, Hadley’s character takes some of the shine off of Marian. Perhaps someone more serious, naive and curious would have been better.
You won’t be able to put it down!