In global navigation, a great circle is drawn along the shortest route between any two points on Earth. It is, then, the most direct course to a given place, one taken when the journey, perhaps, is of less importance than the destination. While such routes may be the most efficient, they are bent to the laws of mathematics, and brook no thoughts for the beauty of passing landmarks or the elegance of the path. Rather, a navigator calculates her great circle in order to drive swiftly and surely to the end. Likewise, Maggie Shipstead’s third novel, Great Circle 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.
Beginning with her tight-knit, slightly dysfunctional family portrait in Seating Arrangements, and continuing with a delicate examination of the world of professional ballet in Astonish Me, 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. Set across two timelines and narrative styles, this sweeping book narrates the lives of two heroines: the young and brash Marian, driven to become an early pilot of undaunted fame in early twentieth century Montana; and Hadley, child-star-turned-disaffected-actress in modern day Hollywood. Great Circle 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.
Shipstead gives the majority of space to Marian — indeed, at times Hadley’s present day, first-person narrative feels more interlude than co-plot — as she matures into an engaging, fearless young woman who is utterly determined to become a groundbreaking pilot. It is with similar gusto that Shipstead follows her own goal throughout the book — to reach the end, and tie in a neat if foreseeable bow the character arcs of her leading women. 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.
Shipstead’s task is immense in part because of the enormity of the tale she chooses to tell — beginning Marian’s storyline years before her birth, for example, creates a dizzying array of characters in the opening chapters. Fortunately, Shipstead is at her best when blending exposition organically within a scene, allowing for expository passages — essential in so wide-angled a book — to read organically, giving the third-person narration a smooth speaking voice. A scene early on, in which Marian and her brother Jamie are on an early, foreshadowing escapade in the local river, is a choice example. In this swift and efficient chapter, Shipstead aptly provides her reader with a roadmap to this twisting romp of a novel, blending the textual with the narrative organically and artfully. Work is being done on both levels, as-a-novel and as-a-story, as readers are subtly introduced to overall thematic concerns in a scene full of effective detail, a vibrant rendering of unspoiled Montana. Here the narrative entity takes its voice, and we begin to understand that this will be a grand sweep of family, universality, adventure in the natural world, and, ultimately, danger and tragedy.
However, there is a price for taking the most direct route to so far flung a destination, and Shipstead pays in full. She is at times risk-averse in rendering her scenes, unable to trust Marian at the most salient points. In order to carve out space for her narrator to turn to the reader, Shipstead will pull out of an otherwise engaging moment with awkward, somewhat sterile explanations, neatly distilled and packaged to ensure easy, risk-free comprehension and accessibility. Like essential baggage from a stalling plane, Shipstead’s inherently vivid scenes and natural prose are sacrificed in order to move ever, inexorably, forward.
The preeminent example of the difficulties this approach can create is found when Marian makes her first decision of true consequence, both in life and in the book, realizing just what she must do in order to reach the air. In this crucial moment, where the the young protagonist’s heroic journey truly begins, Shipstead uses her considerable abilities to craft a close knit scene full of detail and interiority that works to bring the reader into the conversation, sitting alongside Marian as she boldly spars with the strange and fascinating bootlegger, Barclay Macqueen. However, after showing Marian’s inner wonder about Macqueen’s appearance and speculations about his background — a paragraph that smoothly and wonderfully illustrates her trepidation and powerful curiosity on the brink of barging into the adult world — Shipstead shatters the moment and thunderously reminds one of the authorial presence by providing in a parenthetical aside clarifying Macqueen’s age. It is a small point indicative of a fundamental conundrum in Great Circle: in the final analysis, Shipstead’s devotion to her sprawling, ambitious plot causes her to constantly insert herself as a narrative guide, not believing in her actors to speak for themselves or stumble through scenes unaided, as a result denying the book characters of full and vibrant life. Ultimately, Shipstead’s preoccupation with getting each and every reader through the journey hides from them much of what is really worth seeing.
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.
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf Publishing Group
Published May 04, 2021
Dan White is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Otis College in Los Angeles and is currently a Fellow at Stony Brook University’s BookEnds program, at work on his first novel. He serves as the Fiction Editor for the West Trade Review literary journal, where he also contributes essays and reviews, and has nonfiction forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books. His short fiction has been published in Tulane Review and Trouvaille Review. A Chicago ex-pat, he has lived in Long Beach, California for seven years, where he works as a tutor and frequents the beach to hide from writer’s block.