"Great Circle," Maggie Shipstead's third novel, declares its central themes early on, when orphaned actress Hadley Baxter describes the inherent ambivalence of her ambitions: "I wanted to vanish. … I wanted to be more famous than ever. … I wanted to be courageous and free, but I didn't know what that meant."
Shipstead saddles this particular heroine with numerous tragedies — her parents die in a plane crash; her uncle, who takes her in after her parents' death, dies of an overdose — all in the space of a few pages. Hadley's interest in the life of a historic pilot, Marian Graves, intersects with her work when she portrays Marian in a film.
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.
Hadley Baxter's Los Angeles is captured in a slightly wrier tone than Marian's sections: "Behind every film is a mountain of spicy tuna, an ocean of San Pellegrino," Hadley remarks, suffering through an industry lunch.
Marian's childhood in Missoula, Mont., is largely unsupervised; she and her twin brother, Jamie, roam the countryside, their guardian a benevolent but distracted uncle. Marian's benefactor and eventual husband, a bootlegger named Barclay Macqueen, buys her a plane when he discovers that she longs to fly. There are nods to Amelia Earhart and other historical figures made famous by flight, but there is scarcely room for them in a work so thick with imagined characters.
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. Marian's husband dies after a lengthy estrangement, and her thoughts rarely return to her complex and troubling marriage.
A surprising allegiance with Marian's icy sister-in-law, Kate, is given little room to develop, though it is fascinating indeed. There is more than enough material between Hadley and Marian, but Shipstead is deeply invested in Marian's twin, Jamie, as well; he is a fierce protector of animals, a naturally gifted artist, a haunted romantic.
World War II draws Shipstead's multitude of far-flung characters together, as they each must react to it. Marian flies planes in London; Jamie serves as a combat artist; Caleb, the twins' childhood friend (and Marian's first lover), enlists. 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.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared/is forthcoming in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, The Millions, and elsewhere.
By: Maggie Shipstead.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 589 pages, $28.95.