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Great Circle

May 11, 2021

Recently, someone at my local bookstore recommended Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle, and I found it an agreeable enough reading experience. It’s the story of Marian Graves, a WWII-era aviatrix who dreams of completing a “great circle” around the earth and whose adventures culminate in a flight from the North to the South Pole. Marian’s story is interspersed with the story of an actress who plays her in the movie about her life in order to fill in the details and separate the person from the representations of her by others.

I really like the way the novel begins with what seem to be Marian’s penultimate thoughts as she sets out on the last leg of her great circle. I’ve been finishing up the revisions for my own book about travel (Postcard Poems, forthcoming from Broadstone Books in July), and so what Marian says about the impossibility of seeing much of the world reverberated in me: “I thought I would believe I’d seen the world, but there is too much of the world and too little of life.”

Marian’s story is told as a family saga, going through how her parents met and what is known about what happened to them, and how she and her twin brother were sent to live with their uncle, a painter. How she grew up flying for local bootleggers, got inveigled into an early and ultimately abusive marriage with one of them, and how she escaped by flying. How she flew for the allies and fell in love with a woman during WWII. How what happened to her parents led to the funding for her pole to pole flight.

As the actress, Hadley, gets immersed in research for her role as Marian, she is continually reminded that a person has many sides and no one ever sees all of them. An older actor who serves as a mentor to Hadley once proposes a toast “to mystery. May we not ruin it.” And the novel is concerned with the issue of knowability, which is why the story focuses on different people at different times and is told out of strict narrative order, with surprises about the past revealed long after they occurred. At one point, when Hadley meets a woman who turns out to be a descendent of Marian’s brother, she says to her “it’s not like you can really know that much about anyone, anyway….No one sees most of what we do. No one knows more than a tiny fraction of what we think. And when we die, it all evaporates.”

When Hadley and the brother’s descendent are alone they have a longer conversation about being famous and being known. The descendant, Adelaide, says “It must be worse for you, but people think they know about me because I’ve been around and have been written about and so on. Almost no one has more than a few scattered data points, but they connect the dots however they please.” The actress, Hadley, agrees, saying “Oh my god, yes….And they come up with ideas about you that make sense to them and so seem true to them but are actually arbitrary.” Adelaide sums up their conversation and applies it to what we know about their research into Marian’s life by saying “It’s impossible to ever fully explain yourself while you’re alive, and then once you’re dead, forget about it—you’re at the mercy of the living.”

Occasionally the way history is summarized intrudes on the story, as if the author wanted to make sure none of her research went to waste. I got tired of waiting to see what Marian would do next while wading through passages like this:
“Charles Lindbergh goes to Germany, accepts a medal from Hermann Goring. A camera flashes.
When, in April 1939, he returns to the States, he is less a hero than before, rumblings in the press about how he’s become a mouthpiece for the Germans, an appeaser. America, Lindbergh is very certain, must not enter the war. ‘We must band together,’ he writes in The Reader’s Digest, ‘to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of Europeans blood.’
He believes himself fair-minded, blessed with elevated logic. And if Lindbergh believes something, then, Lindbergh believes, it must be true. He starts making radio addresses, then public speeches, draws crowds, fills places like Madison Square Garden with thousands of people who simply don’t want to go to war again but also with Nazi sympathizers, fascists, and anti-Semites (whom the others are willing to overlook).
A brief detour into the future…” (This summary goes on for five more paragraphs.)

But Shipstead does some excellent tying-up of her narrative threads at the end (and there’s no thread more excitingly tied up than the one about a character called “Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly.”) So it’s a satisfying novel; despite being shown how difficult it is to ever really know someone, we end up feeling like we know more about Marian’s story than anyone else, and more important, we’ve found her someone worth knowing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2021 3:13 pm

    Just coming in to say I’m excited about your book 🙂

    • May 12, 2021 10:01 am

      Thanks! I am too. And I think you share the feeling that there is too much of the world and too little of life!

  2. May 12, 2021 4:48 pm

    Also excited to hear more about your book!

    This reminds me of Swann by Carol Shields – all these characters are trying to study/write about/untangle the enigma that was Mary Swann, poet… but the reader doesn’t really get to know her in the end either, so in that way it seems different from the Shipstead book. I will look out for this one when it comes around, I know I ordered it for my branch.

    • May 13, 2021 11:20 am

      My book is postcards from places I’ve been, little ekphrastic poems short enough to fit on the back of one of those postcards. The volume won’t have pictures but it is being designed in a postcard format.
      It sounds right that a character in a novel by Carol Shields would turn out to be ultimately unknowable. I did like some of the optimism of this novel by Shipstead.

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