By Maggie Shipstead
Within the first 60 pages of Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle,” there are two plane crashes, the beginning of a Hollywood rendition of a plane crash and a sunken ship. There’s childhood abuse, adultery and a presumed postpartum suicide. There’s an orphaned 2-year-old and a father sent to Sing Sing as a result of his choice to save his infant twins from the aforementioned sinking ship. There is also a brush with death inside a car that’s rusting in the middle of a rushing stream.
In grad school, I had a professor who used to warn against “starting too high.” She’d hold her arm up in the air and tell us: “If you start here, you have to know that’s where you have to stay.” The start of Shipstead’s book — her third, after “Seating Arrangements” in 2012 and “Astonish Me” in 2014 — 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.
Shipstead’s tale 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 unrelenting: A biplane, “abrupt and magnificent,” swoops down so close to her, “it seemed she could have touched the wheels.” This happens when Marian is 12 — “at an age when the future adult rattles the child’s bones like the bars of a cage” — and, from that point on, a pilot is all she will ever want to be. It’s one of those novelistic origin stories that do not leave space for questions, but Shipstead manages to pull it off.
The other main character (though her story doesn’t take up the time or space that Marian’s does) is Hadley Baxter, the recently shamed and fired star of a “Twilight”-esque series of movies, who is set to play Marian onscreen. In one of my favorite details, the film is based in part on a journal found floating in its own life preserver in the Arctic, years after Marian’s plane was lost as she attempted to longitudinally circumnavigate the globe.
When we meet her, Hadley is on a path of self-destruction (as many of the best novelistic renditions of Hollywood starlets are). She is profoundly lonely, ill advisedly in love with her former co-star’s (and former boyfriend’s) married agent. She might also have a crush on the movie’s backer. Misdeeds ensue.
Told in the first person — Marian’s sections are told in the third — Hadley’s share of the novel offers an intimate and biting point of view, combining the worn-out, jaded sheen of Hollywood with the vulnerability of a girl attempting to leave her old self behind. Here’s Hadley, describing lying in bed with her then-boyfriend’s agent, while the boyfriend waits for them to join him at a restaurant: “We’d had sex, but we were lying there talking, making those first big careless gleeful excavations when everything about someone is new and unknown, before you have to get out your little picks and brushes, work tediously around the fragile buried stuff.”
Marian’s twin brother, Jamie — a sensitive, vegetarian, animal-loving painter — is another character we care for. So is their ne’er-do-well gambler painter alcoholic uncle, who took them in when their father went to prison and when he decided not to parent after his release. While she’s still a teenager, Marian marries a wealthy bootlegger; their relationship is oppressive and turns violent, prompting her to escape to Alaska, where she joins an all-women’s contingent of pilots 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 loss.
“Great Circle” can sometimes feel a bit baggy, but that seems to be Shipstead’s intention. This is a book explicitly invested in sweep. Here’s Marian, in her journal: “I wish to measure my life against the dimensions of the planet”; and Jamie, on his art: “I’ve started to think what I really want to paint is the too-bigness.”
It’s a novel filled with the back stories of tangential characters. We have an overlay of Charles Lindbergh’s story; we track some of Amelia Earhart’s life events and voyages. We get “An Incomplete History of Missoula, Montana” that opens with the phrase “Fifteen thousand years ago.” But 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.
Novels are about parts, but then the parts have to work together to create a whole. Being perhaps a less ambitious novelist than Shipstead, I kept thinking of all the other novels that might live inside this one. What’s so impressive is how deeply we come to care about each of these people, and how the shape and texture of each of their stories collide to build a story all its own. The ending manages to pull each thread in a way that feels both thrilling and inevitable.
At a moment when so many novels seem invested in subverting form, “Great Circle” follows in a long tradition of Big Sweeping Narratives. I hope we always have literature that forces us to reconsider what the form can hold, but also: One of the many things that novels can offer is an immersive sense of pleasure, a sense that something you’ve seen done before is being done so well that it feels newly and uniquely alive.
“Great Circle” grasps for and ultimately reaches something extraordinary. It pulls off this feat through individual sentences and sensations — by getting each secondary and tertiary character right. In thinking about flight (and ambition and art), there is a suggestion that the larger the reach, the more necessary a stable foundation. Here we have an action-packed book rich with character, but it’s at the level of the sentence and the scene, the small but unforgettable salient detail, that books finally succeed or fail. In that, “Great Circle” is consistently, often breathtakingly, sound.