Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead [8/10]

A long, virtuoso literary saga that feels like something from the twentieth century, “Great Circle” interposes the life story of Marian Graves, a pilot who disappears in 1950 while attempting a two-Poles circumnavigation of the Earth, with a tale of a modern-day actress playing Marian in a film. Maggie Shipstead writes sumptuous descriptive prose, her evocations of everywhere from rural Montana to London a delight to read. But the most luminous writing is that about flight; by book’s end, I knew how to fly and what it is like. The novel is also about knowing your dream: Marian longs to fly from a young age, and clings to that vocation through personal trials and tribulations. The author’s systematic plotting of the two stories, with clever interconnections, is sure-footed, and the long read seems far shorter. An expansive book novel like this invites nitpicking, and I found a handful of aspects – the plot treatment of a key gangster, the modern-day story’s overshadowing by the historical one, and the unwinding of the climax – to be slight distractions. But overall, Great Circle is an absorbing, large-canvas read that exhilarates through its grand tale and its brilliant stylistics.

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