What a wonderful, big, sprawling epic of a book this is – big in time, in history, in geography and in scope. Maggie Shipstead apparently spent years researching the history of female aviation and travelling to far flung places like Antarctica and Alaska before embarking on this glorious 600-page saga spanning a full century and the entire planet!
This is the story of Marian Graves, a fictional female pilot who disappeared in 1950 while attempting an unprecedented north-south circumnavigation of the earth – the Great Circle of the title. She only had one short hop from Antarctica to New Zealand left to complete her epic journey when her plane vanished into the sea. Up to this moment, Marian has lead an unusual and complex life. We follow her from the time of her rescue as an infant from a sinking ship and her unsupervised childhood, roaming the Montana countryside with her twin brother, through the years when flying was her saviour, her complicated relationships and war time shenanigans till her final ambitious flight around the world.
Marian’s story is intertwined with that of Hadley Baxter, another complex, independent character who lives a century later. A young Hollywood superstar who made her name in a long-running TV series takes on the role of Marian in an attempt to escape a scandal of her own making and perhaps win an Oscar while she’s at it. Interestingly. despite the 100 year time difference, Marian and Hadley have a lot in common: Hadley’s own parents crashed into Lake Superior in a small plane when she was a baby and, like Marian, she was raised by an absent, unreliable bachelor uncle along with a series of girlfriends and nannies whose roles collided, more often than not. “we were both products of vanishment and orphanhood and negligence and airplanes and uncles”. Caught in the unrelenting media spotlight, her every move exposed to the public, Hadley – like Marian - yearns for freedom. Being cast as Marian Graves might just be the lifeline Hadley is looking for.