... another surprising act of reinvention: a soaring work of historical fiction about a 'lady pilot' in the mid-20th century. Indeed, so convincingly does Shipstead stitch her fictional heroine into the daring flight paths of early aviators that you’ll be convinced that you remember the tragic day her plane disappeared ... Shipstead creates this catastrophe in all its watery terror, but what’s even more impressive is the way she sets up these characters so that we feel the full weight of the fears and passions pulling on them as the boat burns and sinks. Although we’ll never see some of these people again, the author’s careful investment in them sets down a thicket of secrets and obligations that will play out over the coming decades ... a relentlessly exciting story about a woman maneuvering her way between tradition and prejudice to get what she wants. It’s also a culturally rich story that takes full advantage of its extended length to explore the changing landscape of the 20th century ... A novel that switches between two different periods and tones confronts the essential challenge of rendering both competing story lines engaging, and Great Circle struggles to make that case. Hollywood, with all its hypocrisy and excess, may be a fat target, but it’s also a tattered one, and Shipstead has far more success bringing 1914 to life than 2014. The extraordinary realism of Marian’s chapters can make the broad strokes of Hadley’s sections feel light in comparison ... But fortunately, when Hadley gets serious about discovering the real story of Marian, the novel’s parallel stories begin to resonate with each other in interesting ways. Though separated by decades, the aviator and the actress are both powerful women, rising from devastating tragedies to forge their own way ... Whether you’re planning a trip or settling in for a staycation, Great Circle is my top recommendation for this summer.
The start of Shipstead’s book [...] is thrilling and complicated, with many different threads laid out and back stories carefully and richly wrought; for the next 500-odd pages, I felt the fear I feel when a student’s work starts strong, when other novels open high — knowing that, more often than not, lofty heights can’t be sustained. But Great Circle starts high and maintains altitude. One might say it soars ... Great Circle can sometimes feel a bit baggy, but that seems to be Shipstead’s intention. This is a book explicitly invested in sweep ... this far-ranging breadth is as much the project of this novel as any of these individual lives — including all the ways each life exists within the context of so many others, the way the natural world informs and forms us, all the ways we are still only and particularly ourselves ... Great Circle grasps for and ultimately reaches something extraordinary ... In that, Great Circle is consistently, often breathtakingly, sound.
...unbelievably expansive both in setting and scope ... The brilliance of Shipstead’s storytelling is in her character work. The cast of characters in Great Circle are intricate and complex in their own right — each being deeply flawed and therefore deeply human ... Though the plotlines come second to the character development, Great Circle delves into the gamut of human experience, from romance to war to grief. That being said, there are some parts of this book that drag, and it is a novel that will take time and energy to fully delve into ... this book is deeply satisfying. The sometimes arduous reading culminates in a completely extraordinary ending ... Shipstead’s work is still wildly enchanting, with expertly crafted prose and enchanting imagery ... If a reader is willing to give this novel the time it requires, the story’s universal appeal shines through.
With Great Circle, it’s time to rewrite the book on Maggie Shipstead. Her writing still soars and dips with dizzying flair, but this time the dazzling prose is in the service of an expansive story that covers more than a century and seems to encapsulate the whole wide world. With detailed brilliance, she lavishes heart and empathy on every character (save one villain), no matter how small their role ... Shipstead’s prose is savory ... Even as Shipstead constructs her great circle she doesn’t hesitate to veer off course. There are close to 20 characters who are either fully fleshed out or at least sketched in with enough vibrancy that if you met one of them at a dinner party you’d feel like you’ve known them socially for years ... You’ll gladly follow the story as it turns and banks, trusting Shipstead to steer you back on course, weaving all the characters and ideas together as Marian, Jamie, and Caleb travel through the Depression, World War II, and beyond ... Even when the book loses some altitude during the war years, it always rights itself, its narrative momentum propelling you forward. Many authors attempting to create an epic falter at the end, losing control of the characters or the story, but Shipstead never wavers, pulls out a twist or two that feel fully earned, and then sticks the landing. After more than a year of a pandemic that grounded us all, Great Circle could not have arrived at a better time.
... accomplished and ambitious ... boasts two memorable heroines ... Most novelists have their limits and cut their cloth accordingly. Shipstead is a writer who can vividly summon whatever she chooses, taking the reader deep inside the worlds she creates ... Her writing is confident and knowing; her descriptions of light and air sometimes beautiful ... The novel’s separate strands, in the main, are carefully held.
Swinging from first person to third, from one century to the next, from the moneyed splendor of cities to the shifting Antarctic ice, Shipstead's prose overflows with meticulous detail, particularly when it focuses on the machinery of transportation. Shipstead's intellect and knowledge are on full display when the novel slows to survey the workings of boats and planes; the same is true during flashes of exposition about the process of painting or making a film ... Shipstead's project is not to surprise readers with the consistent parallels between Hadley and Marian; rather, she acknowledges and explores these parallels. At times, plot conveniences appear to propel the story forward ... As the novel approaches its final pages, suspense increases — here is where one finds twists and surprises, unexpected connections — though the work's ultimate interest mirrors a quality shared by the Graves twins: a natural, boundless curiosity.
Through the lightly interwoven stories of impetuous flyer Marian Graves and flavor-of-the-month actress Hadley Baxter, Shipstead (Astonish Me, 2014) ponders the motivating forces behind acts of daring and defiance, self-fulfillment and self-destruction. Marian’s sprawling life story forms the bulk of this rolling, roiling epic ... An ambitious, soaring saga, Shipstead’s transcendent tale takes her characters to dizzying heights, drawing readers into lives of courage and mystery.
[A] sprawling new doorstop of a novel ... Shipstead (Astonish Me) has more than enough raw material in her muse to sustain the nearly 600 pages that follow ... Great Circle offers more than just wanderlust; it feels like a liberation by proxy, too.
This new work from the award-winning Shipstead justifies its length, by its intricately designed plot and by giving its compelling cast of characters room to breathe. As Hadley learns some of Marian’s secrets (the ones that weren’t in the script) readers will wonder how much we can truly know anyone. Highly recommended.
... leans heavily on its namesake as it drives towards its landing, and while we do safely reach the end — completing a long, adventurous, and large-scale journey along the way — at times one cannot help but wonder as to the result if more attention might have been paid to the how over the where ... Shipstead’s plots are ambitious, entertaining, and eventful; in these respects, Great Circle is her preeminent offering. The story, at once timely and timeless, fits well in our modern, individualistic age, a clearly well-researched and carefully considered examination of American history. The dual protagonists are engaging and at times inspirational heroines, talented and capable women who offer a refreshing pair of female voices taking on traditional roles of adventure and daring. Shipstead’s greatest talents lie in conceiving boldly drawn characters who navigate and challenge intricately detailed worlds across stories wide in both scope and range; Great Circle is no exception ... draws upon all of Shipstead’s storytelling abilities to sustain its extensive plot, as these lines surge towards each other in rough parallel. While her endeavors are ultimately successful — a grand story is told in the end — and Shipstead aims for a work epic in scope and intimate in approach, her need to wrangle such a plot causes her to get in the way of her characters, prioritizing accessibility and ease of reading over verisimilitude or scenes that leap off the page. Like the navigational guide that gives its title, Great Circle will appeal most to readers who focus on the end more than the means, but for those with an attunement to the intricacies of style, mechanics, and technique, it proves a challenging and at times frustrating work ... Both narratives, told in mostly swift vignettes that aid in proving momentum to the book, build rather inexorably to their resolutions, and although Shipstead is naturally gifted in her ability to examine a private moment with a character, the voice and restriction of both narrator and author is never far from the reader’s mind ... However, the direct path has its place in the world, and Shipstead manages a wonderfully imagined plot of sensational scope. It will appeal to the reader who simply wants to be told a good story, without fixing an eye towards the finer points of method. Like its central character, once Great Circle is off the ground it moves swiftly and surely, drawing a direct, if circumscribed, line from a bygone age of adventure to a modern, dauntless, world.
... it seems the entire novel is about juicy details, including juicy body parts ... If you could cut the tome by half, you’d find Marian’s and Hadley’s parallel stories clearly defined. Unfortunately, both women’s profiles are so heavily padded by so many other people’s stories it’s hard to keep track of the central characters ... The quantity of those extra stories creates a quality divide between reader tastes and expectations. Depending on which side of the divide you stand, you’ll find either a magnificent literary saga or an extremely disappointing aviation adventure novel ... In both women’s stories, almost every character, scene, and situation is glum, caustic, or tragic. The majority of the characters are victims of emotional abuse, physical abuse—including marital rape—or situational deprivation, and suffer from disillusionment or guilt, often both. As well, there’s more sex in these pages than the average hot romance. Whether solo, hetero, homo, or bi, the encounters are mostly sad and soulless save for a few that give little sparks of hope for love ... If you relish deep diving into myriad characters, down to their most private mental, emotional, and physical parts; and you love rich evocation of other places and periods; and you have the mental facility and patience to follow nonsequential time jumps across eras—with a little adventure thrown in for spice—then this book will satisfy your taste in spades. It’s a reading experience sure to invigorate book club discussions and maybe win awards ... If, conversely, you’re looking for a trip-around-the-world-in-an-airplane story, heightened by two women spiritually connected through time, and given depth by supporting characters, then you’re opening the wrong book ... What readers on both sides of the divide will find is excellent writing, character plausibility, and a surprise ending. The question is what kind of journey you prefer to take in 600 tightly packed pages.
Shipstead reveals breathtaking range and skill, expertly juggling a multigenerational historical epic and a scandal-soaked Hollywood satire, with scenes playing out on land, at sea, and in the air ... The destinies of every one of these people, and many more unforgettable characters, intersect in ways that reverberate through a hundred years of story. Whether Shipstead is creating scenes in the Prohibition-era American West, in wartime London, or on a Hollywood movie set, her research is as invisible as it should be, allowing a fully immersive experience. Ingeniously structured and so damn entertaining; this novel is as ambitious as its heroines—but it never falls from the sky.
[A] breathtaking epic of a female aviator ... Shipstead manages to portray both Marian’s and Hadley’s expanded sense of consciousness as they push the boundaries inscribed around them—Marian’s through flight and Hadley’s through creative inspiration (a particularly colorful scene has her zooming on psychedelic mushrooms). This is a stunning feat.