Making Dreams Soar

At least once in our lives, we have dreamt of flying and soaring about the skies. Watching birds, airplanes, and helicopters effortlessly hover above us roused that curiosity in us. How does it feel to fly? How does it feel to glide on vast spaces and see the world from a higher vantage point? How does it feel to be above the clouds? We have become enamored by the idea of flying that many of our actions allude to flying. We have create kites and lanterns to make them soar above us. We buy balloons, mystified at its ability to stay afloat. Miniature airplanes are part of our childhood. But for most of us, flying is symbolic; it is more than simply about defying the laws of gravity.

For young Marian Graves, flying is about freedom and making her dreams soar. The primary protagonist of Maggie Shipstead’s latest novel, Great Circle, Marian and her twin brother, Jamie, found themselves orphaned following the burning of the ship Josephina Eterna, enroute to Liverpool from New York City, in December 1914. Their mother, Annabel, abandoned them, while their father, Addison, the ship’s captain, was incarcerated. With no one to take care of them, the Graves twins grew up under the care of their uncle, Wallace, in Missoula, Montana. An artist living in seclusion, Wallace, was unprepared by the prospect of raising his niece and nephew. Sailing towards uncharted territories was never in Wallace’s DNA but, in his own way, he cared for his niece and nephew. Despite the absence of their parents, Marian and Jamie grew up decently. Parental figures made up for their biological parent’s absence.

Marian’s dream started to take shape in early teens. It was ignited by visiting barnstormers, the Brayfogles, who made her briefly experience what it feels like to fly. It was a dreamlike moment for Marian, almost surreal. It was more than a fleeting moment of euphoria for it was a pivotal juncture in Marian’s life. She knew right there and then that flying was the only thing she wanted to do when she grows up. Fueled by her dream, she set into motion a plan aimed at achieving that dream. She dropped out of school and got herself employed by a bootlegger. However, her job was not generating enough money to support the household that was crumbling due to their uncle’s negligence and addiction to the bottle and gambling. Pinched to a corner, she eventually agrees to a wealthy rancher and liquor smuggler, Barclay Macqueen’s offer to pay for her flying lessons.

“I think about it like this. We are confined to the present, but this moment we’re living now has, for all of history, been the future. And now, forever more, it will be past. Everything we do sets off unforeseeable, irreversible chain reactions. We are acting within the constraints of an impossibly complex system. That system is the past.”

~Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle

While Marian endeavored to take control of her destiny, the narrative diverged and introduced a new character. In contemporary Hollywood, Hadley Baxter was charting her own story. Like Marian, she was already orphaned, losing her parents to a flying accident when she was younger. She was then raised by her uncle, a fledgling Hollywood producer. She grew up under the spotlight and was even casted in some popular series. With her uncle busy living up to his billing as a top producer, Hadley had to learn how navigate life on her own. She also grew up in the library where her uncle’s lovers would leave her. Finding company in books, she came across the journal of Marian Graves. A couple of years later, their lives would converge again when Hadley was tapped to play the role of Marian in a biopic that aims to pay homage to the fallen aviatrix’s life.

Recently announced as one of six books shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Great Circle weaves in and out of the present and the past to regal the readers with intricate details of the lives of Marian and Hadley. Despite this, it was Marian’s persona that loomed large in the narrative. We witness how she grows up to be her own person. Her journals provided a link that bridges the present to the past. In her story, we see how an awkward girl grew up into a young woman who refused to live under under the shadows of her uncle, a young woman who refused to be grounded by the circumstances surrounding her. We see a young woman who chose to fight for her own battles and, in the process, for her own dreams.

Through the exploration of Marian’s story, the narrative covered a wide array of subjects, from the common to the not-so-common. The novel underlined how our addictions, in particular to alcohol and to gambling, adversely affect our lives and the people around us. The desperation was also captured by the story as Wallace who, at the direst straits, was forced gambled the money his brother sent for his children’s future and even his paintings and personal belongings. The debts were mounting and Marian had no other alternative but to gamble her own future to wipe the indebtedness. Little did she know that her sacrifices will alter her own story. There were also undercurrents of romance and sexual tensions but the novel’s brilliance lies in the characters’ refusal to be subdued by circumstances, remaining true to their values. A vivid example sees Jamie refusing a scholarship that would secure his future because his values run opposite to the man who offered to finance his studies. Like Marian, Jamie charted his own destiny.

Shipstead complimented Marian’s story with rich details of history. Popular aviators such as Richard E. Byrd and Charles Lindbergh were mentioned, with even a passage on Lindbergh’s successful transatlantic flight. However, history was also about with female aviatrix such as Amy Johnson, Elinor Smith, and, unsurprisingly, Amelia Earhart. At times the narrative intersects with details of these aviators and aviatrixes’ exploits. There were other historical details that were seminal in the story such as the Prohibition. The Prohibition was vividly captured in the earlier parts of the narrative. The black market and bootlegging are both synonymous to these era. These historical touchstones provided a rich mantle upon which the narrative revolved.

“When you are truly afraid, you experience an urgent desire to split from your body. You want to remove yourself from the thing that will experience pain and horror, and you are that thing. You are aboard a sinking ship, and you are the ship itself. But, flying, fear can’t be permitted. To inhabit yourself fully is your only hope and, beyond that, to make the airplane a part of yourself, also.

~Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle

The novel’s biggest achievement, however, was its detailed exploration of the seminal role that female aviators played during the Second World War. It was this juncture that was one of the narrative’s most interesting and most compelling. It was critical in Marian’s story as flying was a profession that was often associated with men. The novel reverberated with subtle details of misogyny, discrimination, and even gender roles, but these gender-related subjects were most palpable in Marian’s adventures during the Second World War. Unlike their male counterparts, Marian and her female colleagues had to work doubly hard to prove the naysayers wrong. On top of this, the novel also explored subjects of promiscuity, identity, sexuality, abortion, post traumatic stress disorder, and child abuse.

The rich historical details, however, were undone by the superficiality of the contemporary. Whilst Shipstead’s research of history was scintillating, she failed in providing a new perspective upon which to Hollywood, its glitz and glamour. Hadley’s story was the weaker link, a stark dichotomy to Marian’s storyline. Not only was it underdeveloped, it was a digression, almost a distraction from the main storyline. It did little to move Marian’s story forward, except to provide a link between the present and the past, something that has become common in works of historical fiction. Used properly, it can enhance the story but in Great Circle’s case, it was more of a plot device than anything else. The details of Hollywood and the movie industry woven into the narrative were hackneyed and predictable. Illicit affairs, the veneer of glitz and glamour, and brazen virtues, subjects that have become synonymous with Hollywood, were also incorporated.

Marian loomed large in the narrative. Marian is single-minded, remaining resolute and steadfast in reaching for those proverbial stars. She was adamant to make her dreams soar, adamant to the point of stubbornness. She was a young woman on a mission and she was not letting any obstacles keep her from achieving her dream. Despite displaying similar qualities, her brother Jamie provided the equilibrium. The more artistic of the two, Jamie forged a lifestyle that was akin to that of their uncle’s. However, before he could sink into the same hole, he sobered up and stabilize his own life. The exploration of their relationship was also one of the novel’s better facets. Hadley, on the other hand, was Marian’s antithesis. She barely had control of her life and was subservient to the desires of the body. The parallels between Marian’s and Hadley’s lives also came across as forced.

Despite its occasional flashes of brilliance, the narrative did suffer from repetitions which made the story longer than it is. It came as no surprise for the original manuscript was nearly a-thousand pages long before chunks were carved out of the story. Still, there were parts that could have been removed without affecting the story’s overall impact. There were too many unnecessary details and too many ideas crammed into the story. The novel was populated with many characters and Shipstead was fixated with the idea of creating a backstory for each. Not all backstories, however, were necessary in the narrative’s tapestry. It was also abound with gratuitous sexual content.

“I’d like to think I will remember this particular moon, seen from the particular angle of this balcony on this night, but if I forget, I will never know that I’ve forgotten, as is the nature of forgetting. I’ve forgotten so much—almost all I’ve seen. Experience washes over us in great waves. Memory is a drop caught in a flask, concentrated and briny, nothing like the fresh abundance from which it came.”

~Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle

The narrative also suffered from defects in pacing that resulted into an uneven landscape. The first one hundred pages alone were crammed with a plethora of themes. However, the impact was fleeting because Shipstead did not provide enough space to appreciate these subjects and how they figure out in Marian’s life. In the middle part, the story plateaued as it was not as eventful as the first part. It also dragged. To a hilt, the narrative played along the lines of the ubiquitous “it’s not about the destination but the journey” mantra. After nearly four hundred pages, the pace started picking up again towards the concluding chapters.

It was in the last one hundred pages that the main event takes place. After years of flying, Marian finally realized her dream of circumnavigating the world. The readers were regaled with details of the titular Great Circle, a seminal element in the marketing of Marian’s story. It was also in these last pages that the narrative started to take off. It was the most gripping part of Marian’s adventures but, on the other hand, it was a shame that it took nearly 500 pages for the narrative to finally soar.

Great Circle was an ambitious project. It tried way too much to cover a vast ground and while it was commendable, it did weigh on the narrative. It was abound with incidents from shipwrecks to plane wrecks to bootlegging. Nevertheless, it did have its bright spots. Marian was portrayed as the quintessence of the modern woman – resolute, headstrong, and ambitious – and, except for the details of excessive sexual encounters, it worked. While the novel was abound with melodrama, it was at its most brilliant depicting historical events. The juxtaposition of history to the contemporary, however, did not work. The power that the novel holds ultimately suffered from its blunders.

Ratings

63%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

Earlier this year, I encountered Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle. It got several raving reviews. Because of this, it got prominently featured on my news timeline. This piqued my interest and I was torn between buying it or simply passing it over. In the end, I was not convinced enough to take that leap of faith. Things changed after I it was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize; I then added it to my reading list. Its shortlisting further fueled my anticipation for the book; I wanted to know what made it compelling to literary pundits. After Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, it is my third book from the shortlist (and sixth from the longlist). Unfortunately, I didn’t care enough for either Marian or Hadley; the parallels between them was too forced. It was Jamie and Caleb who made novel’s complexion richer. The story did take time to flourish, and it was only in the last hundred pages that the readers are finally regaled with the details of Marian’s dream to circumnavigate the world. Had the story not digressed and simply focused on Marian’s journey, it would have worked for me. Nevertheless, it still had its bright spots.

It is, by far, the least “Booker” of the shortlisted works that I have read.

Book Specs

Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 589
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

An unforgettable, mesmerizing new novel from one of the most exuberantly gifted novelists of her generation, Great Circle ranges from Prohibition-era Montana to the wilds of Alaska to wartime London to modern Los Angeles in an epic tale of two extraordinary women whose fates collide across geographies and centuries.

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There – after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes – Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in the wealthy bootlegger Barclay Macqueen, who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica. Vibrant, canny, chafing at the claustrophobia of Hollywood and cult celebrity, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after getting fired from a romantic film franchise in the midst of scandal. Her immersion in the character of Marian unfolds alongside Marian’s own story, as the two women’s destinies – and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different places and times – intersect in astonishing ways. Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is an astounding feat of storytelling and an exhilarating tour de force.

About the Author

Maggie Shipstead was born in 1983, in Mission Viejo, California. Shipstead graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts. She also graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and was a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She was also a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 2012, she published her first novel, Seating Arrangements, originally a short story that was a product of her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her debut novel was both a commercial and critical success. It was listed a New York Times Bestseller and won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. In 2014, her second novel, Astonish Me, was published. Her third novel, Great Circle (2021)n was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. She is currently working on a short story collection that is expected to be published in 2022.

Shipstead is also traveling enthusiast and has contributed to prominent travel magazines such as Travel + Leisure, Departures, Condé Nast Traveler. Her others writing were also published in other publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Outside, The Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Sports Writing.  In 2012 and 2018, she was nominated for the National Magazine Award for fiction.

She currently resides in Los Angeles.