A great circle is the largest possible circle that can be drawn around a sphere. Maggie Shipstead’s most recent novel, “Great Circle,” often feels like the largest possible narrative that can be drawn around a fictional character.
The life of the protagonist, Marian Graves, comprises roughly three quarters of the story. The other fourth is the seemingly unrelated tale of an actress, Hadley Baxter, playing Marian in a movie about her quest to circumnavigate the earth in a north-south direction, passing over both of its poles. Although both story arcs seem to be running in parallel, they converge and intertwine toward the end to reveal secrets about both characters.
Marian Graves’ story is told in great detail from her earliest years in Montana, in the care of an alcoholic artist uncle after her mother’s apparent suicide and her father’s disappearance. She is exposed to airplanes and flying as a preteen and determines to become a flyer herself. That she manages to accomplish this through perseverance and trickery sets the tone for the evolution of her career.
Hadley Baxter’s story is set in present-day Hollywood. After a public scandal cost her an ongoing role in a fantasy series of films she was offered the lead in “Peregrine,” a movie about the life and presumed disappearance of Marian Graves in 1950. As she endeavors to grow into the role she uncovers surprising details about the woman she is to portray.
Shipstead populates her novel with a multitude of characters, all sharply enough drawn that the astute reader will not require assistance to keep track of their comings and goings. Through the years of Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II this cast of characters interacts with Marian, and with one another, as she grows in reputation as a flyer and aviation pioneer. It is this reputation that allows her to convince wealthy benefactors to sponsor her attempt to fly around the globe from north to south in contrast to Amelia Earhart’s west-to east flight.
At more than 600 pages “Great Circle” is not a light summer read. But the persistent reader will derive pleasure, not only from the writer’s nuanced storytelling but also from artfully crafted portraits of its characters, both major and minor.