THE GREAT CIRCLE
By Maggie Shipstead
There are two plane crashes on the first 60 pages of Maggie Shipstead’s The Great Circle, the beginning of a Hollywood rendition of a plane crash and a sunken ship. There is child abuse, adultery, and alleged suicide after childbirth. There is an orphaned 2 year old and a father who was sent to Sing Sing because he decided to save his twin children from the aforementioned sinking ship. There’s also a brush with death in a car rusting in the middle of a rushing stream.
In graduate school I had a professor who warned against “starting too high”. She held her arm in the air and said to us, “If you start here, you have to know that you have to stay there.” The beginning of Shipstead’s book – her third after “Seating Arrangements” in 2012 and “Astonish Me” in 2014 – is exciting and complicated. For the next 500 pages, I felt the fear I feel when a student’s work starts strong, when other novels hit high, knowing that most of the time high heights cannot be sustained. But “The Great Circle” starts high and maintains that high. You could say it is increasing.
Shipstead’s story follows the story of two women. The first, Marian Graves, is one of the shipwrecked twins. Her decision to devote her life to flying is immediate and relentless: a biplane, “abrupt and magnificent”, rushes so close to her, “it seemed as if she could have touched the wheels.” This happens when Marian 12 Is years old – “at an age when the future adult rattles the child’s bones like the bars of a cage” – and from then on a pilot is all she ever wants to be. It’s one of those fictional origin stories that leaves no room for questions, but Shipstead manages to pull it off.
The other main character (though their story doesn’t take up the time or space Marian takes) is Hadley Baxter, the recently embarrassed and fired star of a Twilight-style film franchise supposed to play Marian on screen. In one of my favorite details, the film is based in part on a diary floating in its own lifebuoy in the Arctic, years after Marian’s plane was lost while attempting to orbit the globe lengthways.
When we meet her, Hadley is on a path of self-destruction (as are many of the best fictional depictions of Hollywood stars). She is deeply lonely and ill-advised in her ex-co-star’s (and ex-boyfriend’s) married agent. She might also have a crush on the film’s backer. Wrongdoings occur.
Narrated in the first person – Marian’s passages are told in the third – Hadley’s share of the novel offers an intimate and biting view that combines the worn, jaded glamor of Hollywood with the vulnerability of a girl trying to leave the old self behind. Here’s Hadley, describing her lying in bed with her then boyfriend’s agent while the boyfriend waits for you to come to him at a restaurant: “We had sex, but we lay there and talked and made the first big ones , careless, happy digs, when all about someone is new and unknown, before you have to get out your little picks and brushes, laboriously work on the fragile, buried stuff. “
Marian’s twin brother Jamie – a sensitive, vegetarian, animal-loving painter – is another character that is important to us. So does her al’er-do-well player, an alcoholic uncle who took her in when her father went to jail and after his release he decided not to be parents. While she is still a teenager, Marian marries a wealthy pirate. Their relationship is oppressive and becomes violent, leading her to flee to Alaska, where she joins a female pilot contingent during World War II. She will find love there, and it will be more dangerous and risky than the flights. There will also be immense losses.
“The Great Circle” can feel a little baggy at times, but that seems to be Shipstead’s intention. This is a book that is explicitly invested in Sweep. Here is Marian in her diary: “I want to measure my life against the dimensions of the planet”; and Jamie about his art: “I’ve started to think what I really want to paint is it’s too big.”
It’s a novel full of backstories of tangential characters. We have an overlay of Charles Lindbergh’s story; We follow some of Amelia Earhart’s life events and travels. We get “An Incomplete History of Missoula, Montana” beginning with the phrase “Fifteen Thousand Years Ago”. But this far-reaching breadth is as much the project of this novel as each of these individual lives – including all the ways in which each life exists in the context of so many others, how the natural world informs and shapes us, how we are still only and especially us.
Novels are about parts, but then the parts have to work together to create a whole. Perhaps a less ambitious writer than Shipstead, I kept thinking of all the other novels that could live in this novel. What is so impressive is how much we care about each of these people, and how the shape and texture of each of their stories collide to create a story of their own. The ending manages to pull every thread in a way that feels both exciting and inevitable.
At a moment when so many novels seem to be invested in undermined form, The Great Circle follows a long tradition of big sweeping narratives. I hope we always have literature that forces us to rethink what can hold shape, but also: one of the many things that novels can offer is a haunting sense of joy, a feeling that something is you seen before, is done well, that it feels new and uniquely alive.
“The Great Circle” reaches for something extraordinary and ultimately achieves it. It accomplishes this feat through individual sentences and sensations – by getting every secondary and tertiary character right. When thinking about escape (and ambition and art) there is the suggestion that the greater the range, the more necessary a stable foundation is. Here we have an action-packed book full of character, but it’s at the sentence and scene level, the small but memorable detail that books finally succeed or fail. “The Great Circle” is consistently, often breathtaking, solid.