Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead review – a soaring achievement

Charting the parallel lives of two women – one an aviation pioneer, the other a modern movie star – this daring novel reaches great heights

A great circle, Maggie Shipstead’s third novel explains on the opening page, is “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere”. The equator is one; so is every line of longitude. The novel’s heroine, pioneering aviator Marian Graves, was attempting to become the first person to fly a great circle intersecting both poles in 1950 when her plane disappeared somewhere in the Antarctic. Decades later, her enigmatic, fragmentary journal is discovered, wrapped in a life-preserver. “What I have done is foolish; I had no choice but to do it,” she has written.

Great Circle is a daringly ambitious novel, traversing in Marian’s story the history of early-20th-century aviation, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the second world war. Threaded through it is a parallel contemporary narrative, recounted by disgraced Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter, who is trying to revive her career by playing Marian in a biopic. Hadley’s drily cynical voice has more than a touch of Fleabag about it, offering a knowing and prematurely jaded insider’s view of the movie industry (“my career is no longer a blow job-based barter economy,” she remarks). She is positioned as a counterpoint to Marian, whose pure and single-minded determination to fly contrasts sharply with Hadley’s tendency to drift through life with occasional bouts of self-sabotage. “I needed the relief of being someone who wasn’t afraid,” Hadley confesses. But both women, in their separate ways, are pursuing freedom in a male world that wants to confine them within preconceived ideas about who and what they should be. “We’re celebrated for marrying,” Marian writes to her twin brother, Jamie, “but after that we must cede all territory and answer to a new authority like a vanquished nation.”

Continue reading...


Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo review – in the company of men

The Three Women author once again explores female desire and sexual power dynamics in a collection o...

Read More >

The Bloater by Rosemary Tonks review – 1960s gem rescued from obscurity

This caustically comic tale of a disaffected wife, back in print for the first time in half a centur...

Read More >

Fight Night by Miriam Toews review – a paean to the strength of women

The Canadian author once again mines her cultural background in a wonderfully drawn celebration of i...

Read More >

You Have a Friend in 10A by Maggie Shipstead review – flawed lives fluently explored

The novelist shows her expertise in the briefer format in tales of sexual power, self-delusion and f...

Read More >

Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz review – life-changing moments of love and death

A memoir by the Pulitzer-winning New Yorker writer offers a fresh look at the most profound experien...

Read More >

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus review – the right comic formula

A tale of female disempowerment in the 50s and 60s gets a culinary tweak in this sweet revenge comed...

Read More >